As the pressures of the twentieth century forced more country houses owners to face the reality that they could no longer live as they had and would have to move out of their homes they then had to decide what to do with it. Unfortunately this meant demolition of hundreds of large houses but some owners were more creative and many houses became commercial premises, either as hotels, schools or institutions, and others became some of the grandest office buildings in the country. However, recent pressures of this century have now seen some of these offices being converted back into homes or being offered for sale as an opportunity to do so.
In many ways the country house has always had an element of the commercial to it with the estate offices usually being based either in a part of the main house or in a nearby building to enable the owner to deal with business without having to travel far from home. The changes of the twentieth century were on an altogether more comprehensive scale with the entire house being changed to accommodate the demands of business. This not only meant the conversion of the main house with all that entailed for the interiors but also the building of further offices in the grounds.
Sometimes the development was kept a good distance from the main house such as at Ditton Park in Berkshire. This became the office of the Admiralty Compass Observatory from 1917 until it was sold in the 1990s to Computer Associates who built a huge office building to the west of the main house (which became a conference centre) leaving the setting intact.
Sometimes though it’s possible for smaller businesses to be accommodated just within the main house such as at Gaddesden Place in Hertfordshire. The house, built in 1768, is a elegant Palladian villa (similar to the White Lodge in Richmond Park) and was James Wyatt’s first country work. The site is said to have some of the best views in the home counties and the sensitive use of the house has allowed to remain in splendid seclusion.
However, modern concerns mean that a country house has lost some of it’s appeal as offices. One key issue is that by their nature the houses are isolated meaning that employees must have cars to reach it leading to more cars on the roads and the need to provide huge areas of parking. Stronger heritage legislation now also means it’s much harder to alter the houses to meet modern business requirements such as air conditioning and computer networking. The nature of the houses also means that maintenance costs are higher than for a purpose built office.
This has led to some houses which were formerly offices to be converted back into homes. Mamhead House in Devon, built between 1827-33 and regarded as one of Anthony Salvin‘s finest designs, it was, for many years, a school before becoming offices for a local building company. It was bought by a businessman who converted the main part of the house back into being a home whilst still letting out part of the house to the Forestry Commission.
Perhaps the grandest and largest opportunity for many years to restore a house into a home is the mansion at Benham Valence in Berkshire. This superb house was built in 1772-75 for the 6th Earl of Craven and was designed by Henry Holland in collaboration with his father-in-law, Lancelot (Capability) Brown, the famous landscape architect. The south front features a grand tetrastyle Ionic portico which looks out over a large lake with views into the parkland. Inside, there are many fine chimney-pieces bought from the sale at Stowe in 1922, including one from the State Dining Room. It also features a small circular double-height vestibule adjoining the inner hall, a design later adopted by Sir John Soane.
The house was empty in 1946 and remained so until it was sold in 1983 and converted to use as offices with a large wing to the north east of the house being demolished and replaced, in part, by an ugly 80’s complex providing over 100,000 sq ft of space. Luckily though the main house was largely spared and remains Grade II* with the 100-acres of Grade-II parkland. Now offered for sale at £6m this is a rare opportunity to create a wonderful country house – providing it’s possible to obtain planning permission to convert it back – which, once restored, could be worth £10-12m. One key requirement would be the demolition of the office complex and the ripping up of the huge car park – but give me a pickaxe and I’ll be happy to lend a hand.
Full property details: ‘Benham Valance, Berkshire‘ [Strutt & Parker]