AFTER two years and thousands of man hours, a sensitive renovation of a pair of the capital’s most elegant Georgian-style townhouses has finally been completed.
However, when owner Rich Formby first clapped eyes on number 56 and 57 Derby Square, the first thing on the agenda was to evict sitting tenants – dozens of pigeons and seagulls.
Having got that job out of the way, the real extent of the job in hand became glaringly obvious.
Few, if any, of the original features remained. Fireplaces had been ripped out and cornice work hacked off. Only the staircases remained, and many of them had been covered up.
Evidently, the entire building had been hastily carved up in the 1970s and early 80s to create nine small flats.
These grand dames were slowly decaying. Perished plaster, damp basements, decayed structural timbers, weak floors and perished mortar abounded.
But rather than dismay at the evident dilapidation, Mr Formby saw promise, as he explained: ‘We knew we had to strip them back to the bone and start again. It’s actually very good to find a building in such a sorry state – we were very lucky to have a blank canvas.
‘Contrary to popular perception, a part-renovated property is often more expensive than to start again.’
After 15 years in the property business working on some of the most avante garde designs, such as The Hempel in London and Sir Terrence Conran’s Liverpool Street Station Hotel, Formby has picked up a trick or two.
He explained: ‘Conran taught us a technique called “visual realisation”, which basically involves putting up stud walls and actually seeing if the space you have created works.
‘If it doesn’t, it may sound daft, but you just rip it down and start again. It’s easier to do this than fit out a space which doesn’t work correctly.’
When Derby Square was originally developed 171 years ago it was the epitome of high society living.
Structural engineer for the project John Grey explained: ‘They were built at a time of Victorian wealth and influence – these buildings provided a spacious and elegant lifestyle.’
Architectural historian Peter Kelly explains the origins of the square, saying: ‘Derby Square was laid out by monumental mason Sir Charles Swinnerton in the early 1840s. The investor consortium included local luminaries such as Henry Bloom Noble and Greensall the chemist.
‘They were distributed amongst consortium members on a one-for-me, one-for-you basis, which meant that some members owned up to two or three properties each.’
They were kept or sold on to local merchants and remained as such right up until tourism happened. Then, chasing the burgeoning holiday trade, almost all of the square launched themselves into the B&B business and by the late 1960s and early 70s many converted to holiday flats which became residential shortly afterwards.
At the heart of this generously proportioned square has always been the formal gardens.
Sadly, over the years they became unloved and fell into the usage of some undesirables, earning itself the unfortunately name of ‘needle park’.
It is suggested that it wasn’t until the arrival of ceramicist Susie Cooper in the 90s that the square started its ascendancy once again.
Ms Cooper invested significantly into two properties, one of which she occupied herself.
Following the recognition of the importance of the character of the square it was granted conservation status on September 1, 2003.
In 2009 Douglas Borough Council invested £100,000 into tidying the area up and installed improved lighting to flush out drinkers and drug users and make it welcoming for local residents.
Fast forward to 2011 and evidence of investment is immediately apparent.
Whilst Formby is tight-lipped as to the purchase price or capital investment, the keys for 56 or 57 are yours for the trifling sum of £1.3 million.
When asked what was the most difficult aspect of this transformation, Formby immediately replied ‘the frontage’.
‘We knew we had to get it exactly right and so worked very closely with Stephen Moore from the Department of Infrastucture – it took us eight months to complete with particular care to ensure that the balconies and railings were absolutely spot on.’
Building conservation officer Mr Moore concluded: ‘I think they have done a good job here.
‘Obviously, each one we undertake is a learning curve. However, the detail in the exterior of these properties, such as the steelwork on the balconies and railings, have a fine visual weight and all the crispness of the original character is retained.’