Artwork Becomes a Renovation Bonus
By RICHARD HOLLEDGE
LONDON — In 1891, Sir William Emerson was hired to redecorate 6 Palace Gate in the Kensington district of London.
The architect already had earned a reputation building in Imperial India and later would design the marble-clad Victoria Memorial Hall in Calcutta, as Kolkata was then called.For the Palace Gate house, built in 1876, Emerson incorporated elaborate cornices to complement the floor-to-ceiling windows and large receiving rooms. And he had a painter, identified in a lone signature as Silas, decorate the ceilings in the main rooms: Birds, clouds and flowery boughs floated serenely in blue skies.
But at some point after 1925, when the house’s owner died, the decorations were covered and then plastered over. They remained hidden until last year when the developers, Leighton & Henley of Berkhamsted, England, began to convert the five-story building into apartments. An electrician found wiring running in the ceiling of what would become one of the apartment’s kitchens and began to investigate.
“The developers were genuinely astonished to find the murals,” said Charles Vyner-Brooks, a director of the London real estate company Brooks Gordon, which is handling sales. “It took them six months to restore the works, but they were very positive about it — not least because it added another foot to the height of the rooms.”
In the apartment designated Flat 1, the plaster ceiling in the reception room originally was covered in lining paper and decorated with water-based paints. During the renovations, areas that had been damaged were either repaired or removed, the ceiling relined with paper and the original painting restored. Four corner areas, depicting the seasons, were newly painted in oils on canvas.
The building, which has a Grade II* historic listing from the English Heritage organization, indicating it is of “more than special interest,” has been converted into five apartments.
What was to be two duplexes spread across the first and second floors upstairs has been sold as one unfinished unit for more than £2,000, or $3,095, per square foot.
On the top floor, the penthouse totals 2,340 square feet, or 217 square meters, with three bedrooms, three en-suite bathrooms and a roof terrace with views over Kensington and toward Hyde Park.
It has all the features that could be expected of a property valued at £5.95 million: a bronze-framed gas fireplace, oak shelves, marble-lined bathrooms and lime oak floors that conceal the under-floor heating. Fiona Barratt, the London-based designer, is creating interiors for all the apartments.
But the finishes do not really compare with the restored murals in the two ground-floor apartments and the one on the lower floor.
Flat 1, with its 807-square-foot reception room and 13-foot, or 4-meter, painted ceiling, has three bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms. With a total of 2,854 square feet of living space, it is priced at £6.25 million.
In 1891, the ceiling of the reception room in the second, 2,737-square-foot apartment was covered in oil-based paint and in gold leaf, then repainted with bronze powder in an acrylic medium to create gold and duck-blue panels. Today, with its two bedrooms, the apartment is valued at £5.5 million.
The house stands in an area typified by its grand properties, many of which are now used as embassies, and which showed a 1 percent rise in prices in April alone, according to a report on central London prices in May 2013 by Knight Frank, the real estate company.
While that may not seem like much, it was bested only by the districts around the City, up 2.6 percent, and Notting Hill to the northwest, up 1.2 percent.
But how much does a find like long-lost ceiling murals add to the price of a property?
“If it is quality work, it must add to its appeal,” says Dawn Carrick, a director of Jackson-Stops & Staff, a London-based real estate agency that is not involved in the project. “But it is hard to quantify the added value.”
The company is handling the sale of 19 Buckingham St., a Grade II* listed Georgian building on the fringes of Covent Garden. Built in 1797, its original entrance leads to a cantilevered stone staircase with a skylight. As it was converted to 11 two- and three-bedroom apartments, many features were uncovered and restored, including fireplaces and window and door architraves.
“When it comes to a listed building, everything has to be done with consent” of the local council and English Heritage, the government-backed body that protects historic buildings, Ms. Carrick said. “You might find a ’60s electric fire and hope there might be a Victorian fireplace behind that or even Georgian behind that — but if you find nothing, you have to return to what was there when you started the work.
“The Victorians were great cover-up artists,” she continued. “They would take beautiful Georgian buildings and plaster over the paneling or the ceiling but, even today, if the property is listed, you have to get permission to take their changes down.”
The mandate can be a problem when a developer wants to change room configurations or add bathrooms but, Ms. Carrick said, “it is often possible to reach a compromise as long as the original work is preserved.”
Yet it can be costly, she noted. “There was a house in Kent where a medieval painting was found and the poor owners had to bear the cost of the restoration.”