One of London’s great Georgian palaces has been resurrected over a
three-year period in a stunning restoration masterminded by British Institute
of Interior Design President Susie Rumbold. She shares the inside story.
Standing by Marble Arch, on a prominent corner overlooking Hyde Park, is one of London’s last great town palaces. It has a floor area of 1500 square metres, 10 bedrooms all with en suite bathrooms, three principal reception rooms, two family reception rooms, a morning room, a magnificent oak-panelled library, four kitchens, a 12-seat cinema, indoor swimming pool, wine cellar, spa and gym.
Originally built in the 1830s and decorated in an austere Georgian style, the house was bought and renovated in the 1890s by a wealthy young couple (he went on to found NatWest Bank) in the French Rococo style. The surviving interior, retaining elements from both these phases of development, ended up an eclectic but lovely mix of the classical and the frou frou.
It was used as a hospital by the Canadian Red Cross during World War 1, turned into flats in the 1930s, and then hit by a flying bomb in the London Blitz during World War 2. As if that wasn’t ill treatment enough, a lift shaft was driven through the middle of the stone cantilevered staircase when the building was unsympathetically turned into offices in the 1970s. When I first saw the property, it was in a very sorry state. It had been standing empty for a decade, there was no electricity, the roof was failing and the English rain was coming in.
Despite being trashed, as a historic building it was hugely protected,so the first thing we had to do before any restoration work could begin, was get permission to turn it back into a single house, and then get further consents for all the detailed renovation and reinstatement works. Absolutely everything – from the cornices and the parquet floors, to the mantlepieces – had to be historically correct for each room and be pre-approved by the planners. In all we submitted more than 30 complex applications to Westminster City Council and discharged dozens of planning conditions over a two-year period.
Most houses of this age and size are what we describe as “top heavy”. That is, they have too many bedrooms for the amount of living space needed by a modern family. Typically, this is why everyone builds ground-floor rear extensions onto old buildings, but in an urban landlocked site, this was not an option, so we decided instead to dig out a basement under the whole footprint of the property and create a palatial leisure floor below the house.
This was a difficult exercise involving engineers and piling specialists, and took a whole year to complete, but the resulting space houses a 10m x 4m swimming pool, a gym, massage room, changing rooms, steam room, Jacuzzi, wet bar, spiral wine cellar and cinema. One of the biggest structural issues with the dig was our proximity to the London Underground. The central line runs under the road directly in front of the house, which meant that trains could be clearly heard rattling past from inside the cinema.
While the digging was going on, we were busy upstairs carefully stripping out all the unsympathetic later additions, so that we could assess what we were actually dealing with. By looking carefully at the old paintwork we were able to find ghosted shapes of the original mouldings, which allowed us to accurately replicate the profiles of architraves and dado rails. I get a real kick out of doing this sort of building detective work, and it’s really satisfying when you can faithfully reinstate those vanished decorative features.
It was during this phase that we began to
discover some of the terrible repairs that had been carried out after the 1941 bomb strike. Two of the three formal reception rooms had deeply coved cornices decorated with swags of handmade plaster flowers and ribbons, but the third was completely bare, so we applied for consent to replicate these so that the three interconnecting rooms matched. We retained a firm of specialist plaster restorers who took impressions of the existing mouldings so that we could recreate them. While they were doing this they discovered to everyone’s horror that the ceilings had been damaged by the bomb blast, and repaired using cement. This material was much heavier than the original plaster and the extra weight had caused the ceilings to become detached from the lathes behind them. If you climbed up the scaffold tower and pushed gently on the ceiling with your hand the whole thing moved.
While we were trying to work out how to stabilise them, the room was in daily use as the canteen for the 50 or so builders working on the project. One afternoon when I was in the site office there was an almighty thundering crash from the floor above and on rushing upstairs we discovered that the whole front reception room ceiling had come down. All the canteen trestle tables and chairs were completely smashed. If this had happened during lunchtime, I’m quite sure people would have been killed. We carefully took down the ceiling in the adjacent room before the same thing could happen, but because we had already taken the moulds we were able to reinstate them exactly as they had been, and today you would never suspect that they weren’t the original ceilings.
One of the biggest surprises we had during the renovation was the library panelling, which turned out to be French and about 50 years older than the house. As part of Napoleon’s renovation of Paris, whole neighbourhoods were demolished, and many of the architectural features from those houses (like panelling) found their way onto the English market. The original panelled room in Paris must have been slightly smaller than the room at Hyde Park Place where it ended up, because we discovered that a false ceiling had been installed below the original ceiling and the room had been “shrunk” to fit the panelling.
The panelling had been painted at some point and then some misguided soul had tried to strip the paint off with a heat gun, scorching the oak and destroying the characteristic graining in the process. It took a team of specialist timber restorers eight weeks to remove the last of the paint and bring the panelling back to life.
The morning room, which faces the library across the ground-floor hall (this is starting to sound like a game of Cluedo!), is papered with scenes of old Hyde Park. This was such a lucky find! I stumbled across an original wallpaper frieze from the 1920s with these wonderful scenes of horses and carriages and people promenading in Hyde Park. The frieze was only 23cm tall, intended to go around the top of a room under the cornice, but the scenes themselves show the Serpentine Bridge and the Wellington Gate, which dates them to the same decade as the house. I approached a specialist wallpaper artist, and she was able to rescale the artwork to exactly fit the room and recolour it for me. Today you can sit in the room and look at the 1830s park imprinted on the wallpaper, then look out the window at the 21st century park.
Because this is a home and not a museum, it was important to weave modern services seamlessly into the structure without disrupting the historic fabric of the building. We replaced the narrow servants staircase at the back of the house with a four-man passenger lift, and a service lift big enough to take a full-size catering trolley. The house is air conditioned throughout, and in the protected rooms where we were not allowed to attach anything to the walls, we designed floor-standing cabinets to look like pieces of antique furniture to house the cooling units.
It sounds mad to have four kitchens in a single house, but they are all needed for different things. On the lower ground floor, we designed a family kitchen with metallic bronze cupboard doors and spectacular feature granite sourced from Verona in Italy, and a stainless steel catering kitchen for the preparation of larger, more formal meals for up to 20 diners. Food can be taken up in the service lift to the formal dining room on the first floor, where there is a finishing kitchen with hobs, ovens and plenty of space for laying out plates and clearing away. The fourth kitchen in the house is the nursery kitchen located off the children’s playroom on the third floor.
The 11 bathrooms and five cloakrooms are all individually designed, and each one features a different marble or limestone. In the master en suite we used 2m x 3m slabs of Calacatta Oro marble, also from Italy, which has soft veins of grey, cinnamon and gold on an off-white ground. Marble is surprisingly fragile, so we had to construct special crates to protect the slabs while we manoeuvred them up the stairs from the ground to the second floor.
My favourite room is the cinema. The ceiling is covered in constellations of LED “stars”, and I was able to have a bit of fun with this. In the design I included the star sign constellations of the owners and all the main members of the project team and for myself, as a homesick Aussie, I added the Southern Cross and the Pointers, all correctly positioned and aligned on the ceiling to show due south.