High and mighty

The sitting room of a mansion flat owned by interior designer Nina Campbell

Their name may have you believe otherwise, but mansion flats were the middle-market housing of the late 19th century. These days they are located in some of London’s most sought-after areas, but 130 years ago mansion flats were a practical solution to the city’s housing crisis.

London was running out of space. The industrial revolution, rapid urbanisation and a booming population made it increasingly difficult for well-to-do families to find accommodation. There were simply not enough houses in areas of the city that were deemed acceptable.

Pressure on housing stock was further increased as a number of upper and middle classes returned from work with the recently dissolved East India Company and wanted houses in the right part of town that were also large enough to accommodate a couple of servants. It became harder and harder to find, and maintain, a suitable townhouse, as there were just not enough properties available.

The capital already had a number of flats, but they were regarded as only fit for the working classes. What’s more, the French were known to live in apartments, in close proximity to their servants, which the English middle classes found utterly unappealing.

Indeed, in the 1870s when the first mansion-flats building programme was proposed, one horrified gentleman wrote in a letter to The Times: “There is a real possibility that one could meet one’s servants on the stairs in a mansion block.”

But necessity won through, and in 1876 developer Thomas Hussey began work on Albert Hall Mansions, overlooking Kensington Gardens in central London. His original plan was to imitate the grand fin-de-siècle style of Paris, but the architect, Norman Shaw, devised a more Flemish style with red brick, gables and decorative stonework. This became the de facto style for London’s mansion flats, which were built across an area extending from Kensington to St John’s Wood and Battersea and Fulham.

Hussey was so concerned that his flats might not sell that he divided the project into three distinct blocks, making sure that each one was fully occupied before he started work on the next.

He needn’t have worried. The middle classes decided they were acceptable after all; the appeal of a spacious apartment with a porter on hand and the prospect of a long lease, which meant they didn’t have the responsibility of looking after it, won over earlier reservations. And, in a final appeal to their snobbery, the fact that they were called “mansion” flats was a bonus.

Today, their grand façades, large windows and high ceilings help to make mansion flats some of the most desirable properties in London.

With nearly half of all Londoners living in flats, compared with 14 per cent in the rest of the country, competition to secure a mansion property is fierce as these extra details can make all the difference to the quality of life.

Alex Oppenheim, associate director of estate agency John D Wood, in Battersea, says that flats in this area of southwest London mostly achieve 104 per cent of their asking price.

“They are sought after by both first-time buyers and those with families,” he says. “We have people on waiting lists for particular buildings and a three-bedroom flat overlooking the park can expect to fetch up to £1.6m.”

Nina Campbell, an interior designer, has lived in two mansion flats and decorated many more. “They really were well built so you don’t get lots of noise from the surrounding flats in the way you do in a conversion,” she says. “The other good thing is that the ceilings tend to remain high all the way up the building, unlike a Victorian house, where they get progressively lower.”

Campbell believes there are a few tricks to decorating mansion flats and suggests keeping the decor fairly neutral, or “traditional with a twist”, as she calls it. This might mean, for example, taking a chair sourced from an antique or second-hand shop and covering it with bright contemporary fabric. Other options include using a modern perspex curtain pole to hang traditional curtains.

“Mansion flats do lend themselves to a calm palette with a colour tone leading from one room to the next and then a mixture of floor surfaces; parquet and carpet,” says Campbell. “Then perhaps a traditional Chesterfield sofa, a couple of library chairs and a drinks trolley.”

To get this look Campbell suggests shopping at Chelsea Textiles, in Walton Street, and Alfies Antique Market, in Church Street, Marylebone.

Leonora Beaubois, founder of bed­linen company L&B, lives in the same mansion block as the late Princess Diana before her marriage to Prince Charles in 1981. She and her family moved from their Belgravia townhouse, in west London, because there were too many stairs and with two children she craved life on one level.

They converted their fourth bedroom into extra living space and asked for permission to install an additional bathroom and increase the size of the kitchen. It was at that point that the downside of mansion-flat living became apparent.

“We were not allowed to move the bathrooms or to extend the kitchen because the rules of the building are that all the plumbing must run in the original place,” she says

Nor were they allowed to remove a wall between what is now the dining room and sitting room because of an existing fireplace.

In spite of these complications, Beaubois still managed to create the space she desired: keeping the walls and floors neutral she added modern twists, such as a gold coffee table and chunky hand-carved wooden stools from her own shop. The dining room chairs are turquoise, matching a painting on the wall.

“Now that we have decorated we really don’t mind that it wasn’t exactly how we planned,” she says.

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