Architect Stuart McLauchlan outside Athlone House and, below, what will become the master bedroom inside the 1870 mansion
Published: 14 July, 2016
by DAN CARRIER
IT is a project requiring the investigative skills of a detective to unravel a buildings past - and the vision to take a semi-derelict Victorian pile and reinterpret it for today.
Architect Stuart McLauchlan has been appointed to restore and re-design Hampstead Heath mansion Athlone House and says it is about striking a balance between preserving what's best of the old and giving it a modern twist.
Athlone House, the Hampstead Lane mansion due to be bought by Russian businessman Mikhail Fridman if he is granted planning permission, is set to be restored and updated after more than a decade of lying empty and slowly falling into disrepair..
The deal between Mr Fridman and the previous owners – rumoured to be members of the Kuwaiti Royal Family – was brokered by high end estate agents Savills. Architects Spence Harris Hogan were then suggested by the agents as having the necessary experience and expertise to fix the ramshackle shell of Athlone House for modern needs.
As Mr McLauchlan walks through the rambling, overgrown gardens he outlines how he has taken what is already in place, drawn up the extensive restoration programme and remodelled the 31,000 square feet of buildings in a project that could cost up to £20m.
He begins by explaining the plans for two outhouses at what would be the new entrance to the grounds.
A gatehouse, currently condemned, will be restored and turned into a two bedroom guest home with an open plan ground floor and rooms upstairs, while another building will house staff.
“This cottage will be used for visitors,” says Mr McLauchlan. The mock-Tudor brick building is possibly the oldest on the site, he says, and its gentle, pitched roof is visible from Hampstead Lane.
Next to then guest house, a new entrance is planned, bringing the owner down an avenue of trees to his mansion. A smaller road will take vehicles off to a staff wing and for deliveries, while the main, grander drive will take Mr Fridman up to the front door. A round about with an ornamental pond in the centre will be dug out – one of three ornamental ponds in the grounds.
Strolling through a beautiful, over grown grass and flower meadow – nature has enjoyed the decade-long planning wrangle that stopped the previous owners demolishing the home – you can begin to get the sense of how unique this building is. Bordering Hampstead Heath - an overgrown fence is the only sign that you are on private land – the meadows and woodland could easily be part of Kenwood. Landscaping will take place, with some of the ancient oaks preserved, a giant cedar coppiced, and a silver birch wood encouraged to grow round into the only new section of the build . Based on a Victorian walled garden, it will house a spa and swimming pool complex with views down a rolling lawn.
Elsewhere in the garden is a folly that is shaped like a castle tower, complete with battlements and an arrow slit: its each use is unclear, except as an expensive garden ornament. Mr McLauchlan believes it was used to store fruits and vegetables, with the original shelving still in situ.
A new use for this striking building has yet to be decided on, but it will be restored. Elsewhere, a new pavilion is planned on the site of an overgrown tennis court.
“The owner doesn't play tennis so he wants to use the space for a new pavilion, some formal gardens and two lily ponds,” says Mr McLauchlan.
The only reminders of games played is the court's surface hidden under a foot of rotting plant matter and a rusting, twisted, broken down fence that surrounded the games area. Another pointer is a darkened archway that was once used to store tennis equipment: it will now become a wine cellar, and the tennis court area will have a a pavilion built for barbecues, parties and entertaining.
The House was constructed in 1870 and has gone through various guises since. Now it's interior holds clues to former glories – panelled ceilings, a grand staircase, intricate stone work – but reeks of abandonment. It was for many years an NHS run older peoples home, and its beautiful wooden floors have been covered with lino and the large rooms carved up into smaller offices, bedrooms and treatment rooms.
While the previous owner argued no one would want to spend the type of money needed to bring Athlone House up to date,, its new owner wants to do exactly that .
“In terms of the buildings language,there are a lot of clues we can pick up on,” he says. “There are a lot of options. In fact we had so many ideas we have had to whittle them down.” restoring all that is good with Athlone. In their planning brief, they describe it as being “richly eclectic, red brick with abundant stone dressing with Gothic tracery, florid tone coped Dutch gables and tall Tudor style chimneys.”
One of the first jobs to be completed is the restoration of the exterior. Parts of the original brick work is in good shape but sections that have been badly repaired down the years will need attention.
“Areas have been fixed with sand and cement render, not lime, and this has damaged the bricks,” he says.
The first six months will be dedicated to getting the exterior fixed and then builders can move inside.
The ground floor will be fundamentally remodelled to offer various areas in an open plan setting: it will include a TV area, a snug, a piano area, bar and plenty of space for entertaining. A dining room has views opened up across a rolling lawn, and the ground floor also has a family kitchen and then another, larger one to provide space for cooking banquets and a former billiard room will become a study. The basement will have a cinema and wine cellar, while elsewhere, a grand oak staircase will be restored, fire places and ceilings repaired, and on the first floor a series of suites with bathrooms created.
A private study with grandstand views is also planned.
The roof will have solar panels and an observatory room with telescopes will offer views across London.
“I can imagine Mr Fridman sitting up here, gazing out,” he says.