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Page last updated at 11:57 GMT, Wednesday, 12 May 2010 12:57 UK

Why is the door at 10 Downing St so shiny?

The Magazine answers...

Gordon Brown has gone, David Cameron has arrived. The one constant is the heavily polished black door to 10 Downing Street. But why does this famous Georgian entrance have such a high-gloss sheen?

High gloss door at 10 Downing Street
Look at that sheen

It is the only way in - and out - of the prime minister's residence - a black Georgian door flanked by a dutiful police officer.

But avid viewers of recent events at the centre of government may have noticed the door's almost unnatural sheen. The door is made of bomb-proof metal with high-quality gloss paint as a coating.

Originally made of black oak, the high-security replacement was installed after 1991's IRA attack, in which a mortar launched from a van parked in nearby Whitehall exploded in Number 10's back garden. The wooden original - thought to be Robert Walpole's door from 1735 - was replaced with an identical-looking high security door with a solid letter box.

Workmen remove the door to give it a fresh lick of paint, 2002
Door is bomb-proof metal with high-gloss paint
Replica fitted during regular maintenance and repainting
Even wooden original - replaced in 1991 - is very shiny

"At that point they realised a solid wooden door just wasn't strong enough and replaced it with a metal-backed version," says Cressida Finch, exhibitions manager of the Cabinet War Rooms, where the original now takes pride of place in the Churchill Museum.

Despite the nicks and bumps that give an old wooden door its character, even that is "incredibly shiny", she says.

"Somebody comes down from Downing St, an official Number 10 cleaner, to polish the brass every couple of weeks. They don't like us touching it."

Behind the green door

Nor has the front door always been black. During the early 20th Century it was painted green - dark green, in fact, from 1908 to 1916, when Herbert Asquith was in power. And as an April Fool joke in 2006, the Daily Mail reported that the famous black door had been replaced with a red version.

Some political observers were asking whether Cherie Blair's love of redecoration had finally gone a step too far.
Others said the go-ahead had been given by the Prime Minister himself, apparently feeling well and truly at home nine years after claiming the keys to Number 10

Daily Mail, 1 April 2006

As 10 Downing Street is a period building with many original features, the heavy high-security front door retains the Georgian panelled look of the wooden original. And the Downing Street website notes that the "0" in the number 10 is at an angle as a nod to the original, which had a badly-fixed zero.

When the door itself is in need of maintenance - perhaps a new lick of high-gloss paint - it is removed and replaced with a replica which is kept in storage, says Anthony Seldon, author of 10 Downing Street: The Illustrated History, which charts the architectural and human history of the building.

These refurbishment works often take place during the summer recess, when the prime minister is out of town, on holiday.

|Cleaner polishes the door
Elbow grease helps

"Ever since it was replaced, there has been a spare door for when it needs repainting," says Mr Seldon.

Being metal, the door is so heavy it takes several workmen to lift it off its hinges and away for a fresh lick of paint.

While the iron knocker in the shape of a lion's head still knocks, there is no point in ringing the brass doorbell to the right - it does not work.

"The door just opens," says Mr Seldon. "They've got someone watching on a screen inside so they can see what's happening and when to open the door."

Question mark floor plan of BBC Television Centre
A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

On the other side of that famous exterior, there is a brass handle while the paintwork is off-white to blend in with the muted tones of the entrance lobby.

But there have been red faces when someone has been stranded on the doorstep, knocking to no avail - as once happened to the Blair family, notes Mr Seldon.

And is it the most famous door in the world? "There is no equivalent door at the White House, although it is a seat of greater power. But it's not been in use for as long."

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