When Wheeler, 58, and his wife, Pat, 55, a commercial property lawyer, bought their 1720s, five-storey house in east London in 1997, it was so decrepit that the roof had fallen in at the front and water had damaged the entire front wall, rotting the upper windows.
Georgian house restoration in Spitalfields
Georgian house restoration in Spitalfields
1/7 If it ain't broke...
To retain the integrity of historic buildings as you restore them, keep change to a minimum says architect Rupert Wheeler, pictured at his home with the family's pet Maltese terriers.
2/7 A touch of New England
Visible rafters, period furniture, original boards and a pastel palette combine in a charming master bedroom, which once was a wrecked space beneath a collapsed gabled roof.
3/7 Saving the best
The couple left most of the old horsehair plaster, with its patina of different colours and layers, just patching it up where necessary. Many of the original floorboards and shutters were retained, too.
4/7 A masterful conversion
Rupert and Pat decided a third-floor room that was once a kitchen would make the perfect master bathroom, but they retained character and interest by keeping the Regency hob in the fireplace.
5/7 Soak up the atmosphere
The master bathroom is the perfect setting for a relaxing soak while appreciating the house's period features - but for modern convenience when time is tight, the couple also created two small shower rooms.
6/7 Period meets modern
Creating a ground-floor kitchen with wow factor, Rupert Wheeler took inspiration from his work on Livebait fish restaurants, to include an island and reeded glass splashbacks with a silvered effect.
7/7 Outside room
Planners balked at the idea of a big picture window in the Grade II-listed house but eventually gave permission and now it's a joy, giving a full view of the restored walled garden.
Inside, all the partition wall panels had been ripped out by 19th-century furriers intent on turning a home into a factory. The ground-floor back wall had been knocked out, too, and the walled garden roofed over with mossy glazing, creating a vast, shed-like workshop.
There were two smelly lavatories at the back, butting up against ancient three-storey stables, once the home of horses that pulled London omnibuses. The building had no running water — unless you count the stuff pouring in through the roof — and no gas. “And there were miles of alarm wire, pinned everywhere, which was awful to remove,” says Wheeler.
The basement had been turned into a low, dank bomb shelter for the entire street, with corrugated steel for a ceiling. Down there, the Wheelers found colonies of dead rats because, after the furriers moved out and another factory failed, the property was left rotting for more than a decade.
Architects, however, are immune to such trivial problems. “With care, this house could last indefinitely,” says Wheeler. “There’s no real reason why not. It has already stood for almost 400 years. Bricks last forever.”
The couple, who met 30 years ago in the snow on Clapham Common when both were lost and looking for a party — “thankfully the same party” — had been living in an old captain’s house in Deptford, which they bought at auction and restored.
But Wheeler, who set up his practice in 1986, wanted to be closer to the centre of town. He and Pat had been gazumped a few times when he was doing a job in Spitalfields and contacted Jeremy Tarn, an independent estate agent famous for being picky over who he sells old houses to. “I said, ‘Please just go and find us something’. And he did. He knew we would take it on.”
But not everyone would tackle such a project, which also included getting permission to revert it to a family home. It was Grade II-listed, and when the planners came round and heard that the Wheelers wanted to replace the missing back wall with a big picture window instead of the bricks and two windows that were probably there originally, “there was some harrumphing”.
Nevertheless, a deal was struck — as long as the walled garden was restored, they could do it. The result, a year-round view of the garden, is a joy.
A year or so after they bought the house, Wheeler was designing a shop for fashion designer Ermenegildo Zegna in New Bond Street, who was throwing out all the original 18th-century panelling. “Which he could do because, surprisingly, the property wasn’t listed,” says Wheeler. “He said, ‘Just take it’. It fitted perfectly.” So the Wheelers’ panelled internal walls were reinstated, with fire lining to meet regulations.
Over the next few years the couple fixed and restored the property, having new windows made where necessary and repairing the rest. They kept the old front door, but a fine surround was made for it, and they rebuilt the collapsed gabled roof, but left the rafters visible, so that the master bedroom, at the top, bathed in morning sunlight, feels like a New England hideaway.
The restoration was sparing. As Wheeler says: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They left most of the old horsehair plaster, with its patina of different colours and layers, just patching it where necessary.
A lot of the floorboards were sound, as were almost all the old shutters. On the walls in the hall, they found original 18th-century sheets of orange-lacquered paper, intended to resemble embossed leather, which they kept.
“The good thing about a sweatshop is that while they do rip some things out, they’re too mean to change much, so lots of original stuff stays,” explains Wheeler. However, some things were done for modern convenience, such as putting in two small shower rooms. The couple also turned what was once a kitchen on the third floor into a lovely master bathroom, although it still has its Regency hob grate in the fireplace.
On the ground floor they made a kitchen island, using some of Wheeler’s ideas from when he designed the interiors for Livebait fish restaurants — especially its splashbacks of reeded glass, silvered behind. The couple’s 13-year-old daughter, Coco, has a normal teenager’s room at the top, and the Maltese terriers, Pasha and Tinkerbell, have a modern-looking dog blanket.
Otherwise, this house has been left as much to its own devices as possible, gently furnished by Pat with finds from antiques shops and fairs, some of which are mid-century modern, but most of which are older.
And, spared from falling down for another few hundred years, the house seems happy with the arrangement.
Rupert Wheeler has two key tips for conserving historic buildings:
- Don’t do things just for the sake of tidiness and neatness.
- Apply the philosophy of essentialism — if it isn’t essential, don’t do it.
WHAT IT COST
House in 1997: £205,000
Money spent (1997-2000): £210,000
Value now: £3.5 million
GET THE LOOK
- Architecture and interior design by Rupert Wheeler at www.mackenziewheeler.co.uk
- Leadwork and roofing by Richard Page at www.londonleadroofing.com
- Windows by North Kent
- Joinery at www.nkj.co.uk
- Mouth-blown glass from T&W Ide on 020 7790 2333
- Decorative artist John Brinklow at www.johnbrinklow.co.uk
- Wooden floors repaired and replaced by specialist Vinda Saax on 07986 292867
- Electrician: Alan Andrews at www.northlondonsparks.co.uk
- Kitchen and front door case by Peter Davies at The Dovetail Joint, www.thedovetailjoint.co.uk
- Planting by Paul Gazerwitz at del Buono Gazerwitz — www.delbuono-gazerwitz.co.uk
- Paints by Farrow & Ball — Lime White, French Grey and Pigeon — from www.farrow-ball.com
- Furniture from Decorative Antiques & Textiles Fair at Battersea Park — www.decorativefair.com; Alfies Antiques Market — www.alfiesantiques.com — and other markets.
Photographs: Charles Hosea