Ferrous Augur reckons he has just about the best office in London. You can see why. There cannot be many places that beat Brunswick House for dilapidated grandeur. Above Augur’s desk hangs a sparkling glass chandelier of 18th or perhaps early 19th-century, Anglo-Irish provenance. A few steps away, flooded with light from the expansive Georgian windows, stands a faux tortoise-shell, chinoiserie long-faced clock by Francis Gregg of St James, c1720. Behind him stands one of those grand English fireplaces familiar to anyone who has watched Downton Abbey.
The odd thing is that it is all for sale. Augur says that £10,000 or so will buy the chandelier. Stump up £12,750 and you can take away the clock. Or perhaps you would prefer his own elegant mahogany desk? He will need only a minute, he assures me, to clear out the stapler, paper clips and the rest.
There is nothing ordinary about Brunswick House. Once home to Friedrich Wilhelm, the Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, who fled to London after an unfortunate run-in with Napoleon at the battle of Wagram in 1809, this fine mid-18th-century mansion has since served as a club for railway workers and a discreet meeting place for members of Her Majesty’s secret service. Most recently it was rescued by a company in the business of, yes you guessed it, architectural salvage.
Now the house, an emblem of bygone elegance, sits stranded at the eastern end of the rising canyon of concrete, steel and glass office blocks and riverside apartments that London’s excitable estate agents have dubbed the Nine Elms quarter. The half-built towers and irregular slabs that these days pass for architectural modernity stretch as far as the eye can see until they reach the majestic Battersea Power Station. The US government is building a new, moated London embassy fit for a superpower.
Yet, for all the scale, there is an extravagant flimsiness about it all. You cannot help to think that 30 or 40 years hence, the developers will be tearing it all down again. An orphan of history, Brunswick House will outlast them all.
As managing director of Lassco, the upmarket dealer in rescued treasures, Augur has turned the mansion into the company’s flagship emporium, selling architectural antiques, monumental salvage and curiosities. To bring the house back to life he has added a well-reviewed restaurant and a thriving “venue” business. Fancy a dinner party with a difference? The “impressively shabby” Saloon — once the duke’s drawing room — will seat 60 in style. A small cocktail party? Try the Library. A disco for the teenagers? The Cellar Rooms will keep them out of sight.
Brunswick House has somehow contrived to become one of London’s best-known and yet least explored houses. Everyone knows it; not many know quite what it is.
A brisk walk from Westminster on the south bank of the Thames, it sits opposite a large bus station and next to five lanes of traffic on one of London’s busiest junctions. The great battleship of a building that houses the spooks of MI6 is a near neighbour. The house cannot be missed by passing drivers. Few stop to ask why and how it escaped the bulldozers.
The three-storey mansion — along with a coach house, offices, stables and three acres of gardens reaching down to its own jetty at the edge of the Thames — was built (as Belmont House) in 1758. The Coade stone portico was added to the classically square Georgian façade some years later. Construction coincided with the emergence of the area as the cultural draw of Victorian London. Royalty mingled with the masses at the vast, tree-lined Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. A forerunner of today’s theme parks, the gardens hosted composers such as Arne and Handel and painters Hogarth and Hayman.
The glory days, though, were cut cruelly short by the march of economic progress. Large even by the standards of the day, the house was soon divided: the good duke leased one half before returning, fatefully, to fight the war against Napoleon. He perished at the battle of Quatre Bras in 1815, just days before Wellington’s decisive victory at Waterloo. It was with the industrial revolution and the arrival of the railways, however, that real decline set in.
The rural Elysium of 18th-century Vauxhall made way for the grimy factories and belching smokestacks of Victorian London. Brunswick House surrendered its river views and then its gardens to a terminus for the new London to Southampton railway. A gasworks and railways goods yards followed. A mysterious fire ravaged one part of the house.
By the 1850s the building had been bought by London and South Western Railway to serve as offices for the adjoining Nine Elms locomotive works. A railwaymen’s club was established on the upper floors. What was to become the Brunswick British Railways Staff Association Club would remain in residence for the best part of the next century, falling into abeyance only when the then Conservative prime minister, John Major, privatised the railways during the 1990s. The club boasted a library as well as a billiard table.
Folklore has it that the mansion served as a meeting place for the spies based in Lambeth’s Century House and, for a time, as a lookout spot for Scotland Yard detectives monitoring the thieves’ market that operated from an adjoining coach park.
What matters is that Brunswick House survived, thanks largely to one of those much-maligned bureaucrats who staff Whitehall’s quangos. In the early 1970s the then Greater London Council thought it could make a financial killing by dismantling the house, selling off the land and promising to rebuild it on a cheaper site elsewhere. The idea was thwarted by the unnamed penpusher’s farsighted decision to bestow the building with a Grade II* listing.
By the time Lassco moved in 12 years ago, Brunswick House had been permanently cut off from the river Thames by the St George Wharf housing complex that now towers behind it.
The building was in an advanced state of decay, stripped over many decades of most of its fireplaces and panelling and suffering the depredations of squatters. Augur recalls that he started with what is euphemistically called a “deep clean” before restoring light and power and patching up the roof and walls.
Lassco has salvaged the house rather than sought to restore it to its former glories. Most of the walls are stripped back to the bare brick and the floors are roughly boarded. Augur’s office is the only room still with its original panelling. Fashionistas would call it English shabby chic.
Nor do the thousands of items for sale pay exclusive homage to its architectural heritage. Amid the grand chimney pieces, regency cabinets, stone statuary and fountains you will also find garish neon signage, African tribal masks and art deco. “Eclectic” is Augur’s description. “We buy stuff that is fun,” he says, and “it doesn’t all come from Mayfair and Belgravia.”
You might think that amid all the historic splendour, he would resent the encroaching towers. And, yes, he is a bit concerned that yet another skyscraper may soon cut off light to his office. But, all in all, he welcomes the regeneration of a part of London hitherto left behind by the capital’s rising prosperity.
The new US embassy will soon be setting up shop a few hundred metres away. Waitrose has already moved in with a new store. “There are more and more people living and working in the area,” says Augur. “I don’t necessarily like all the designs, but I think it is exciting.” And he is right, of course, that all that steel and glass makes Brunswick House look all the more gloriously permanent.
Philip Stephens is the FT’s chief political commentator
Photographs: Stefan Lorett; Veronica Rodriguez; Getty Images