A labour of love: the restoration of Hammerwood Park

Hammerwood Park, Sussex (Image: South Downs Living)

Once a house has sunk to such a level of dereliction that even the developers won’t take it on, this can easily lead to an application for demolition and the loss of another piece of our architectural heritage.  Yet, as we see in the media, there are often people willing to commit themselves and their money towards saving these beautiful homes – Hammerwood Park is one which certainly falls into this category.

The house was built in 1792 for Benjamin Sperling and is particularly important as the design of the house was the first commission of Benjamin Latrobe (b.1764 – d.1820) who was later to be hugely influential in the direction of American architecture.   Latrobe had studied architecture privately and served for a year from 1789 as an architectural draughtsman in the office of neo-Classical architect S.P. Cockerell. Howard Colvin suggests that Latrobe was also strongly influenced by the work of French architects such as Étienne-Louis Boullée whose own strictly neo-Classical style emphasised the paring back of unnecessary ornamentation and the use of grand scale with repetitive elements.  Through Hammerwood Park it’s possible to see this philosophy in practice with the giant pilasters on the garden front and the miniature temples on the flanking wings.

The early death of Latrobe’s wife in 1793 caused him to abandon Britain and head to America where he made friend’s with President George Washington’s nephew.  It was these contacts which enabled him to obtain further commissions including the Bank of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia which has been described as the ‘first monument of the Greek Revival in America’ (dem. 1867).  It was this and his later work designing the first Capitol building in Washington which so greatly influenced the future of American architecture towards the ne0-Classical which is so evident even today.

That a building as interesting as Hammerwood Park was ever allowed to deteriorate to that extent was unfortunately all too common in the post-WWII era. It is only the dedication of it’s current owner, David Pinnegar, that has probably saved the house from conversion or even demolition.  After various owners it was requisitioned during WWII for use by the Army who left it in their usual poor condition.  Post-war, the Chattell family, who then owned the house, sub-divided the house into flats but as dry rot took hold, the residents moved out and the house was sold in 1973 to the rock group Led Zeppelin for use as a country retreat to work on their music. However, touring commitments meant they never moved in (and rumour has it they even forgot they owned it) and whilst empty, thieves took the roof lead leading to massive wet rot outbreaks.  The house was boarded up in 1976 before finally being offered for sale in 1982 in Country Life magazine with the marvellous understatement that it was ‘in need of modernisation’.

David Pinnegar, then only 21, bought the now grade-I listed house and has since dedicated his life to its restoration.  The vast house has revealed many interesting architectural nuances as he and many volunteers have worked through the vast catalogue of repairs. Although he has secured some grants from English Heritage, the vast majority of the work has been financed through day visitors, B&B guests, and its use as location for a wide variety of films and music video shoots.  In many ways, David’s dedication is proof that all houses, no matter how poor their condition, can find a saviour.

Full story: ‘Hammerwood Park, East Grinstead: Whole Lotta Love‘ [South Downs Living]

House website: ‘Hammerwood Park