Buying a property with a view to renovate or refurbish can feel like an overwhelming task, especially when historic features are involved, but with careful planning and project-management, and the right craftsmanship, concerns can be mitigated. Experts and owners with experience of the restoration of historic properties—from a Parisian Art Deco landmark to a crumbling English stately home—offer their advice.
Detail and Deadlines
When Nick Ashley-Cooper became the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury in 2005, he inherited the crumbling Grade 1-listed country estate, St Giles House in Dorset, as well as his title, and quickly realized that he needed to do something to restore it. “I had to sell the house to someone unconnected to the family or I had to try and do something myself,” says Ashley-Cooper. He chose the latter, and today St Giles is his main business, used as a venue for music events, weddings, festivals, and accommodation.
Ashley-Cooper suggests taking time to consider whether you see your investment as a business opportunity or as a personal indulgence. Either way, his advice is key. “First of all, be available,” he insists. “To get the best outcome you’ll need to be on site and managing the project quite closely. If you’re there making decisions as and when they arise, it becomes a lot more efficient.”
Choosing your team is also very important. “You may have to navigate between a few different people to get what you want. If it’s an old building you’ll need someone who really understands historic buildings and how to restore them, as opposed to a hip architect who’ll want to do things that don’t really work in practice. So that’s a relationship you’ll have to manage; what you want from a design perspective as opposed to what historic buildings will allow you to do. And if it’s a listed building—that’s a structure that’s historically protected in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland—you’re going to need other permissions.”
And choose your craftspeople carefully too: “If you want things to be done properly then you should use the right people,” he advises.
Equally important is paying attention to the detail of the project: “Have up front a detailed specification of what you want done, which you can price, and a contractor who’ll stick to the budget really closely and not let it spiral out of control. You can avoid a lot of horror stories and surprises by getting a detailed specification for the work up front and getting a contractor to price against those items. Therefore, you have a bit more control over what you’re getting and what it’s going to cost. And finally, and really importantly, have meaningful deadlines. Having a real deadline requires quite a lot of input from you to make people realize that it’s really important. Otherwise you’ll find projects drag on and on, and ultimately that will probably mean your costs go up as well.”
Many want a perfectly realized, contemporary rendition of a legacy property, but be realistic about what you want and how to achieve it. Interior designer and architect Steven Gambrel has restored and renovated a number of 18th- and 19th-century houses in and around New York, and says: “If you’re going to buy a historic house because you love the old wavy glass windows and the spirit of the floors, you must understand that you’re not going to be able to have some of the creature comforts that come with 21st-century living.”
He adds: “I would do anything on earth to maintain that wavy glass in the windows, even if it means having a drafty room. I would just put on another sweater. But, if you’re not that person, then that’s not the right house for you.”
This can be a niche market, but don’t be afraid to consult with experts who have experience and can deal with even the most surprising revelations. Atelier de Ricou in Paris, for instance, has a wealth of experience in this field. Their most recent project was to restore the historic Art Nouveau Hôtel Lutetia, built in 1910 by the architects Louis-Charles Boileau and Henri Tauzin.
It’s a commission the firm delivered with aplomb. Hôtel Lutetia is, once again, a landmark—and the only luxury grand hotel on the city’s Left Bank. When built, the hotel represented a daring move from Art Nouveau to the emerging style of Art Deco. It is now once again a Parisian icon.
For Atelier de Ricou’s co-director Stéphanie de Ricou, the biggest surprise when renovating was discovering the Salon Borghese (now renamed Bar Josephine) had since been transformed into a plain white space with no architectural or decorative ornamentation. It took the team of restorers at Atelier de Ricou more than 17,000 hours to remove the five or six layers of paint and plaster in order to restore a dazzling fresco on the room’s ceiling. “The original designers had so much imagination,” says de Ricou. “No one would have thought such a painted décor existed in Paris, to be recovered 50 years later.”
For those thinking of renovating their own private residence, she offers the following advice: “Take the time to stay there, alone if possible (walking, looking carefully, even dreaming or listening), because a building or a room has an identity that you have to try to understand. Of course, there are no rules—but if you pay attention, the place will tell you what its real beauty and poetry is. Fashions come and go, so keep your eyes wide open. You never know what might be behind a layer of paint!”
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