Actually buying 27 Portland Square was a race against time. There was a deadline for offers to be in by and, if I hadn’t had a crack team around me, I’d have missed it by a mile. We made it just in time though; my offer was accepted – and by June 21st 2001, Midsummer’s Day, this beautiful building was mine!
A lot else was mine too. Like most of Portland Square, Number 27 had been offices throughout the 20th century. The place was filled with desks and chairs and rusty filing cabinets. A model of an old sailing ship stood broken on the mantelpiece. Might some of this be useful? I wandered around like the last hand on the Marie Celeste – room after room, one silent floor after another. Where to begin?
The building hadn’t changed hands since 1933, so some of the clutter was interesting. Oak desks and a large board-room table. The goat-skin indenture of the original 1792 lease. Three huge iron safes – one of them hidden behind a hinged painting on a false partition wall. Experts said the safes were so heavy they would destroy the staircase if we brought them down it from the first and second floors. Instead they had to be “flown” out of the window and lowered alarmingly down to ground-level. The biggest we dropped right down into the basement courtyard and rolled it through to sit at the very base of the stairs’ spinal column.
I think of this phase now as the project’s Chrysalis stage – a period of deep internal transformation. Any place takes time to renovate, but a Grade 1-listed building comes with serious extra strings attached – and I soon realized that anything under a year would be insane. So I made a promise that my beautiful butterfly would first spread its wings on Midsummer’s Day 2002!
Planning consent alone took five months – and nothing major could be done till then. But the council planning department were really supportive. My proposed change of use ticked every one of their boxes. They wanted to keep employment in the square – and I would be a business. They wanted more residents – and I would be “living above the shop”. And the evening courses I planned would animate the square at night and provide a different activity than the sex workers,
Meanwhile I could get to know the five floors of my chrysalis, and figure out what elements of old caterpillar would become which bits of the new butterfly. How was the building’s past going to influence its future?
I didn’t want a museum. I didn’t want to live and work in a place that made you tip-toe round and hold your breath. The previous owners, English Corrugating Paper, had been cutting edge in pre-War days but had done little to “improve” it since. And though the Luftwaffe’s bombs had flattened much of that side of the square, somehow Number 27 had dodged them. It had kept more of its features than anywhere else in the square – from the Georgian bread ovens in its
But the 20th century had taken its toll. Computer cable had been smashed through cornices, partition walls had turned some floors into a series of mazes, and the room I called the library felt like a prison cell due to heavy iron bars on its tall arched window. And of course I needed a new roof!
And meanwhile I was living in a building with seven toilets but no bathroom. No kitchen either! And my “home” was slowly turning into a building site. But – hey! – a chrysalis isn’t meant to be a holiday camp. And the crucial thing was that day by day I could picture my butterfly more clearly.
While waiting for the planning consent we set about painting the smallest room on the top floor. It had been a maid’s room two hundred years before, low-ceilinged but right up there by the sun-burst of the conical lantern. It seemed to take forever! The walls weren’t high, but even this smallest of rooms was enormous! When the paint had finally dried I moved my bed in and made myself at home. Great! But I was woken that night by a noise like Niagara. I got up and poked around, and found that the wooden boxing that ran by my bed seemed to have a river inside it. An open lead gutter was channelling a torrent of rain water past my right ear! The Georgian developers had frowned on downpipes marring the façade of the square, and instead sent the rain water from the hidden parapet gutter at the front, back through the maids’ room and away down the internal plumbing! I wondered about the Georgians’ use of Feng Shui….
Down at the other end of the building we had problems though – traces of dry rot in the depths of the basement. The front of the basement was a large airy kitchen (with original bread ovens) – or it had been before a forest of deep wooden shelving was installed. But the Old Kitchen was light because its windows gave onto a courtyard with further arched alcoves running under the street. The back of the basement was a series of amazing domed chambers – white-washed but entirely without natural light. And the furthest of these harboured the dry rot.
As I stared up at this with my builder Andy, my heart sank. I knew the grief that dry rot meant! But Andy took a step back, put his head on one side, and came up with a typically lateral suggestion. ‘June,’ he said, ‘we could just knock this all through.’ I looked up at the ceiling, baffled. He explained that this part of the cellar was in fact a courtyard that had been sealed over, a twin of the kitchen courtyard at the front. We went upstairs…..
Outside the barred Library window was a depressing stretch of slimy concrete. Andy said that if we re-opened the courtyard, we would not only get rid of the dry rot and let light back into the basement, but the heavy iron bars could come off the Library window too because there’d be a sheer drop in front of it. Bingo! We did just this – and it turned the Library into one of the most beautiful rooms in the house. So the Georgians really did know what they were up to!
It was a year of mess, much dust and things getting worse before they got better,