February 2019 / Homes & Interiors / by Karen Heaney

At home with: Andrea Livingstone

Restoring a semi-derelict Grade II listed Georgian townhouse to its former glory was a labour of love for art historian Andrea Livingstone.

What drew you to Marylebone?

I lived in Oxfordshire but all my children had left home and were London-based. After 30 years being in the countryside I wanted to enjoy the convenience of city living, being closer to galleries, the theatre and, of course, to my children and grandchildren.

What appealed to you about this property in particular?

It was a fabulous and rare opportunity to restore a Georgian London square townhouse back to a family home. The property was also appealing because it still retained its mews to the rear. As well as providing off-street parking, the mews flat above the garage is incredibly useful and offers a lot of flexibility. I could see the potential in the house – the proportions were generous, and much of the original fabric of the 1820 house was still intact. It had survived remarkably unscathed. It was bright, south facing, spacious and looked onto a mature garden square, with private residents’ garden within.

What state was the house in when you bought it?

It was in a sorry condition – it had been occupied by squatters for a number of years. The structural timbers were damaged so the floors slumped precariously in the middle of the house. The ground floor had been used as an office space, and the second and third floors had been turned into separate flats. Many of the original features had been covered up: most of the shutters had been painted over; the fireplaces had been blocked up; and the cantilevered limestone staircase had been covered in white gloss paint. Much of the original woodwork had been ripped out and numerous sash windows replaced with late twentieth century metal frames.

Did you have a clear vision of what you wanted to create?

Not as such, but I knew that with the right help the house had the potential to become very special. The architects, McLaren.Excell, were very clear in their approach; identifying areas to be restored and where we could add contemporary elements that would be in keeping with the original fabric of the building. They did a whole series of layouts, eventually we settled on a scheme where the kitchen was moved to the ground floor next to the dining room. We re-instated the original floor plan on the top two floors, which gave us four bedrooms and three bathrooms. And the landing and corridors were opened up, giving more light and space. They had the great idea of removing all the low, flat ceilings from the top floor rooms, and opening them up into the pitched roof, giving space for two more bathrooms and an artist’s studio.

How was the work approached?

First, we had to secure Listed Building Consent. McLaren.Excell had to provide a comprehensive restoration programme that detailed how they planned to repair and/or replace important historic features. The first step was to see what remained of the original features – and there were some real surprises. When they removed the paintwork from the window reveals they found a near-complete set of original, functioning shutters and when they uncovered the cantilevered staircase they discovered a beautifully preserved limestone structure. To repair areas of woodwork, they copied sections of surviving joinery and replicated their exact profiles; they opened up three fireplaces and re-instated chimneypieces that were in keeping with the period of the house. They took impressions of the original cornice sections and reproduced them in plaster to restore the collapsed ceilings; and all original pine floorboards were pulled up, sanded down and re-laid. The plain glass fanlight was replaced with an exact reproduction of the original. And the natural finishes of many surviving elements were left exposed to showcase the beauty of the materials.

How did you integrate the contemporary elements?

With all the restoration work agreed, we could start thinking about the contemporary elements. I wanted these to contrast with the period detail, while being sympathetic to their context. So we settled on a soft palette of materials that would work in such refined surroundings: Italian limestone, Welsh slate, cast concrete, African wenge and weathered zinc – all natural materials which, in time, will age beautifully like the house.

How long did the project take from start to finish?

About two years all told. It was very much a collaborative process and I loved working with them.

What were the pleasant surprises/main challenges along the way?

The pleasant surprises were unearthing more and more old fabric and discovering the beauty of the original Georgian proportions. The challenge was doing all this work on a reasonable budget! We had the right team of artisans, suppliers and specialist fabricators, so we were able to achieve so much without the budget spiralling out of control.

What do you most enjoy about living here? Which is your favourite room, and why?

My favourite room is the new kitchen that looks over the square. We spend most of our time in there, and with its cantilevered island and versatile layout it has served us well. The first floor living room is also very special – it’s arranged laterally across the house and is a huge space with wonderfully high ceilings. Three tall French doors open out onto the garden square and light fills the room in a way that’s rare
in the centre of London. 

Any tips you’d like to share about taking on a project of this scale? What do you wish you’d known before you embarked upon it?

I had been lucky enough to do a few restorations before and I knew the value in employing an architect that would go above and beyond the normal expectation. They designed all the internal spaces, kitchens, bathrooms, joinery, lighting etc. and were passionate about their design approach and the material qualities they introduced. This was always going to be key in making a project like this a success.The cost of building is always more than you anticipate, and I would advise anyone taking on a project to have this understood and agreed before they embark on the work. No matter how well things are planned, there will always be surprises along the way – far better to factor this in from the start.