The estate office: country houses as corporate headquarters – and Barrington Hall, for sale

Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: Hamptons)
Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: Hamptons)

In many ways, a country house was often the headquarters of a business relating to both the estate and the affairs of the family who lived there.  This role was to be mirrored in the latter half of the 20th-century as firms sought to adopt the prestige of stately homes and set up their offices in the many country houses which were then available. What grander statement could a company make to clients and investors than to invite them to visit their stately offices?  Yet times changed, and over the years companies found it harder to justify such lavish accommodation, leading to a steady trickle of houses being sold – and the latest is Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire.

Shalford Park, Surrey (Image: (c) Allianz Insurance Plc via Shalford Village)
Shalford Park, Surrey (Image: (c) Allianz Insurance Plc via Shalford Village) – click for an excellent history of the house

The Second World War ushered in the modern era of offices in country houses.  With little by way of aerial bombing, few firms saw the need to move out of London and other cities in World War I, however, this danger had dramatically increased by 1939.  Faced with the significant logistical challenges in moving their vital paper-based records and operations, the late 1930s saw a number of companies actively scouting out possible alternatives, with country houses an ideal choice due to their size and seclusion.  This new lease of life enabled some houses to escape the demolisher’s pickaxe, such as at Shalford Park in Surrey.  A solid, well-proportioned Georgian house, the result of a rebuild of an older house in 1797, had been sold to Guildford Borough Council in 1938, but primarily to protect the land from development, with the intention that the house be demolished.  However, a lease was granted to the Cornhill Insurance Company (later part of Allianz Inc) who moved there in 1939, creating dormitories on the upper floors.  Cornhill were to remain at Shalford Park until 1955, but unfortunately the condition of the building had significantly deteriorated, and combined with it being in the ideal location for a new local water treatment works, meant that the house was demolished.

Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)
Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)

One house which fared only slightly better from this type of arrangement was the beautiful Wrest Park, Bedfordshire.  A fanciful French château, it was built in the 1830s to the accomplished designs of the owner, Thomas de Grey, 2nd Earl de Grey, and features some of the finest, and earliest, Rococo Revival interiors in the country – of particular note is the spectacular staircase.  The house was sold in 1939 for £25,000 by John G. Murray to the Sun Insurance Company (later Sun Alliance) who bought it in anticipation of war. They promptly moved there from London once war had been declared, having made plans to ‘…alter the stable block and erect huts in the grounds for sleeping quarters, together with washing facilities and air-raid shelters … the stable block was the first area to receive our attention. The whole of the East Wing and the upper storey of the West Wing were to be converted for sleeping accommodation with toilet and washing facilities. The middle connecting section was also to be similarly altered, but it was later decided to make part of the upper storey into a communal long room.‘. Such scenes were undoubtedly repeated in many a country house – though such a use was preferable to the treatment meted out at the hands of enlisted men or children.

Cranbury Park, Hampshire (Image: Angus Kirk via flickr)
Cranbury Park, Hampshire (Image: Angus Kirk via flickr)

Other houses had the good fortune to secure relatively benign tenants for the duration of the war. The imposing Stratton Park, Hampshire, was built between 1803-06 by George Dance the Younger for Sir Francis Baring, Lord Northbrook, a founder of Barings Bank. Although it had been sold following the death of his descendent, Francis Baring, 2nd Earl of Northbrook in 1929, the house was bought back by Barings Bank in 1939 as their base for the duration of the conflict (though sadly it was demolished in 1960 by a later Baring who had bought it after the war).  The choice of house was possibly influenced by the fact that the Bank of England had decamped to the nearby beautiful Cranbury Park, also in Hampshire – and, coincidentally, also designed by George Dance the Younger, but built in 1780.  This little known house, still lived in today by the Chamberlayne family who commissioned it, has particularly impressive interiors; the hall and ballroom were described by Pevsner as an ‘unforgettable experience‘. Compared to the horrors of the bombing in London, what a strange pleasure it must have been to be stationed in such an environment.

Banqueting House, Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)
Banqueting House, Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)

The extensive alterations to even such an important house as Wrest Park indicated the level of damage such intensive use could bring to buildings which had not been designed for such a purpose.  The post-war era held many threats to country houses and use as offices saved many from the wave of destruction which led to the demolition of so many in the 1950s.  In 1949, Wrest Park was sold to the Ministry of Works, who leased it to the National Institute of Agricultural Engineering, later called Silsoe Research Institute which inflicted even more stress on the house and estate.  Although Simon Jenkins included it in his book ‘England’s Thousand Best Houses‘, he wrote that ‘The [Institute’s] outbuildings spoil the approach avenue and its abuse of the interior is dreadful.  The best of the reception rooms, the library, is packed with modern bookcases and computer equipment. Other rooms are cheaply kitted out for lectures and seminars.  It is like a Soviet academy of sciences camped in a St Petersburg palace.’. Thankfully the Institute closed in 2006 and the ground-floor rooms of the house (sadly, office space remains), along with the superb gardens and Thomas Archer‘s sublime Baroque banqueting house have been expertly restored by English Heritage.

Hursley House, Hampshire (Image: Sarah Graham via Panoramio/Geolocation)
Hursley House, Hampshire (Image: Sarah Graham via Panoramio/Geolocation)

The pressure to create more space is often the cause of the most damaging changes to a country house.  Simon Jenkins’ criticism of the additional buildings at Wrest Park can similarly be levelled at the extensive construction which has taken place at Hursley House, Hampshire, home of IBM UK.  The house itself was originally built between 1721-24, with ‘gentleman architect’ Sir Thomas Hewett acting as architectural consultant for Sir William Heathcote, and with further major reconstruction in 1902-03 to create the imposing Queen Anne house which appears in various marketing materials.  What the images don’t show is the huge campus (of fairly ugly buildings) which has sprung up so close to the house since IBM took over the site in 1958. A more intelligent approach to the siting of extra accommodation can be seen at the Computer Associates site at Ditton Park, Berkshire, where the new office buildings have been placed a sensitive distance from the main house.  If their priorities changed, the house could be sold and could resume a comfortably independent existence even if the offices remained in use.  Such a change might once have been expected at Donington Hall, Leicestershire, which served as the headquarters for the airline BMI for many years until the recent merger made it redundant.  Sadly, it’s actually unlikely that anyone would chose to live there as there would be no peace and quiet as the parkland has long been converted into the Donington Park race circuit, just half a mile south of the house.

Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: from "A New Display of the Beauties of England" (London : 1776-1777))
Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: from “A New Display of the Beauties of England” London,  1776-1777) – click to see full size image

Sadly, it is uncommon for a house, once it has been used as offices, to escape such a fate being made permanent.  The alterations and additions can render the house a soulless shell with the grounds ruined beyond the possibility of economic rescue.  However, some have survived this role remarkably intact and, if the possibility presents itself, offer a remarkable opportunity to rescue a house and bring it back to the glory of being a single family home.  One such example is Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire, which has had something of a chequered history.  The original house (above) was built between c1735-40 for John Barrington to designs by John Sanderson (b.? – d.1774), a man who Colvin wrote was described as a competent ‘second-generation Palladian’, who worked on an impressive roster of houses including Hagley Hall, where he proved to be an accomplished designer of rococo decoration, Kelham Hall (burnt down 1857), Kirtlington Park, Pusey House, Langley Park, Copped Hall, and Kimberley Hall.

Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: Hamptons)
Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: Hamptons)

Barrington Hall remained unfinished (despite the engraving above) and was uninhabited for 128 years due to, what the estate agents refer to as, ‘bizarre and unfortunate events‘ (anyone with more details please do post a comment!). The house was eventually restored in 1867 by George Lowndes, a distant relative of John Barrington, who employed the Lincolnshire architect Edward Browning to remodel it in a Jacobean style. The changes created an attractive house with a varied and interesting form, featuring a series of handsome architectural details such as the ‘Dutch’ gables, quoins and a miniature ogee turret.  The house was bought by the Gosling family in 1903 who had merged ‘Goslings Bank‘ to create Barclays & Co in 1896. It was then sold in 1977 to the British Livestock Board who converted it to offices and then subsequently sold in 1980 to CPL Aromas LTD, a family perfumery firm who seem to have had some challenging times following an ill-fated public listing in 1994, which they reversed in 1999.  Having remained at Barrington Hall it now seems that the company has reviewed its requirements and decided that a stately home is a luxury no longer required.

Although originally offered several months ago for £5m (with 32.85-acres), it seems possible that a serious, but lower, offer could be successful.  It would probably take at least £2m to restore this fascinating house, creating the rich and lively interiors which it needs to match the exterior and bring it back to life, but whoever did so would have the pleasure and pride of having rescued an interesting country house from the drudgery of corporate service.

—————————————————————————–

Sales website: ‘Barrington Hall‘ [Hamptons] – which, by the way, is a pretty weak effort.  Nice photos but quite lacking in details.

Listing description: ‘Barrington Hall‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Know any more? If you’re aware of any other country houses of a similar size to Hursley House, Ditton Park, or Donington Park, please post a link (ideally) to a Google Map aerial view in the comments below.

N.B.: an earlier article on this blog (‘Converting country houses from commercial to residential: a sound investment?‘) looked at a few other examples including Gaddesden Place, Hertfordshire, now the headquarters for Xara software, and Benham Valance, Berkshire.

Converting country houses from commercial to residential: a sound investment?

Benham Valence, Berkshire (Image: wikipedia)
Benham Valence, Berkshire (Image: wikipedia)

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]