You know you really have achieved celebrity status as an architect if you are still a household name three centuries after your death. Or your surname is adopted for a revival of your architectural style a couple of hundred years posthumously. Sir Christopher Wren and the Wrenaissance. St Paul’s Cathedral in the City, central London, may be his most famous ecclesiastical building but at the opposite end of the scale spectrum is Boone’s Chapel in Lee, southeast London.
Or at least Boone’s Chapel is attributed to Sir Christopher Wren. It certainly exhibits many of the trademarks of the master: chunky modillion cornices; boldly rusticated quoins; scroll key blocks; a rather delicate timber cupola crowning its pitched roof; and more oeils de boeuf than a farmer’s field. Beefcake architecture. A study in red (bricks and rooftiles). Originally part of an almshouses complex, Boone’s Chapel has found a new use that is staggeringly appropriate. It’s become an architects’ office.
Question. What are the only two Grade I listed buildings in London to be converted into apartments? Answer. St Pancras Hotel (the upper floors) and Roehampton House (all of it). They couldn’t be more different. Harry Potter v Brideshead. Northanger v Mansfield. Gothic v baroque. St Martin’s v Queen Mary’s. Gritty regeneration hotspot v leafy southwest suburbia. The one thing they do share, along with all fellow listed buildings, is the challenge of adapting to suit contemporary lifestyles. Dreaming up a bedroom out of a circular space for Apartment 15 was just one minor Roehampton House brainstorming success. An island of wardrobes backing onto a freestanding wall solved the what-about-storage and where-do-we-put-the-bed dilemma in one fell swoop.
City boy Thomas Cary seemingly built the original block in 1713. Thomas Archer was the architect. City boy Arthur Grenfell seamlessly added new wings in 1913. Edwin Lutyens was the architect. City developer St James seamlessly reimagined the enlarged house as 21 apartments in 2013. Nick Davies was the architect. This heritage asset has never looked hotter, set off by pristine landscaping. Not a leaf out of place. The twin gatehouses have been revived and six contemporary garden villas continue the fine building tradition. Now for more questions and answers with the latest architect to display his talent at Roehampton House.
When Roehampton House and the former Queen Mary’s Hospital site came to the market, St James was the only organisation from the parties bidding who recognised that once restored the house could create real value. Plus it is a magnificent setting and centrepiece for the adjoining new development. All the other parties saw the house as too great a challenge. St James was the only party who was serious about taking on the restoration and conversion of the Grade I historic building.
Grade I listed buildings are comparatively rare. They comprise less than 3% of all listed properties and in law everything extant at the point of listing is protected. As with all older buildings, many changes and additions had been made over the years. The challenge of unravelling what should be retained and what can be changed is a long process of evaluation and discussion with English Heritage and the local borough conservation team. There was a desire to restore many of the original rooms that had been subdivided to their original proportions, particularly the panelled rooms that had survived in the Georgian part of the building. St James removed an intrusive steel frame which had been put into the building to strengthen it in the 1980s and had destroyed much of the historic structure. We also needed to put approximately 50 new bathrooms and nearly half as many kitchens into a building which had had very few services whilst preserving and conserving as much of the surviving historic fabric as we could. That was quite challenging.
The surviving pleasure grounds and walled gardens have been restored to their former glory and provide both the setting for the house and the framework around which the masterplan for the new surrounding development was shaped. The houses and apartments are traditional in design but not direct copies either in style or materials of the house itself. They also provide the transition between the character of the historic house and the adjoining suburban roads of Roehampton village which were developed in the early 20th century.
Although the costs of restoring a building such as Roehampton House are very significant, the sales values per square foot generated for the apartments have exceeded new build values so there is a genuine cachet for living in this type of historic property. It is also hard to quantify how much uplift the setting of the house has given to the sales prices in all the adjoining new properties but clearly they have also benefited from the overall setting and sense of place… their values reflect this. As with all historic buildings many of the problems you will encounter remain hidden from view. Control of costs is very hard with these unknowns. Many however can be anticipated with proper research and investigation into the history of the building. Using the right professional consultants and sourcing craftsmen skilled in historic building construction techniques is vitally important in managing this process and winning the support of English Heritage and the conservation officers.
The design of the garden villas evolved from the discussions with English Heritage. Firstly, the rebuilding of the boundary wall on the north side of the pleasure grounds to reinstate this feature at the rear of Roehampton House had left a small piece of land. This land is sandwiched between the site boundary and the new hospital to the north. The original hospital buildings had in fact encroached into the area of the historic pleasure grounds. A key part of our planning strategy was to reinstate the grounds to safeguard the future setting of the house. English Heritage was very keen for this too so that the original frontage of the house could be kept clear of vehicles. To finance the cost of underground car parking it was agreed that a suitable form of development could be designed for the area now occupied by the villas. English Heritage was keen not to confuse the history of the house. It felt that a very simple contemporary design solution which sits quite low behind the wall and is quite self effacing is therefore an appropriate architectural response to the setting of the building. This raises all sorts of views about whether buildings in close proximity to listed buildings should be in the manner of them or totally contrasting and of their time. These are the philosophical discussions you always get into in matters of conservation.
In restoring the building we had to respect the original hierarchy of the rooms in the house and the level of decorative detail that would have been present in these which we could put back, even where this had entirely disappeared during subsequent alterations in its later history. This even extended to us undertaking a full historic paint analysis of the most historic panelled rooms to understand the original decorative schemes that had existed when the house was built. There were three centuries to inform our choice of colours for decoration. Many of our big cost items were still hidden from us behind historic construction that we could not disturb prior to acquisition. If it can be arranged, pre acquisition survey work is essential in minimising risk and cost overruns. Even with the best knowledge it is not possible to anticipate all the problems you may encounter as you peel back the layers of history.
So far we have experienced a particular interest from local residents looking to stay in the area but downgrade on size. This is noticeably different to other St James developments which attract a more international audience. Perhaps because of Roehampton House’s heritage and Grade I listed status it draws more British buyers. This could also explain the interest from retired couples who like the idea of living in a grand country home but don’t want the upkeep.