Thirties House - Real Homes

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This era-defining Thirties house's space, light and historical context cast a spell over its current owners

With its severe right-angles, uncompromising brick facade and flat roof, Scott and Kate Voorhees’ home in Hampstead is a key expression of Thirties Modern Movement style. In 1999, its historic importance was recognised and it was awarded a Grade II listing by English Heritage – proving that not all of Britain’s half million listed buildings are honeysuckle cottages or stately homes, but works that exemplify the architectural canon.

Not that this impressed Kate and Scott’s friends and family when they bought it in 2002 – and they themselves weren’t sure, either. ‘Everyone thought we were nuts,’ says Scott, and Kate found its facade ‘unforgiving’. ‘My initial impression was not good,’ she says. ‘I remember thinking: “I don’t think I can do this”.’

In 2002, the Voorhees had been living in Singapore and San Francisco, and were keen to acquire a home in London with garage space. Scott, who is American, had lived in London as a student, while Kate is from the UK. They moved back with their children and started looking in Hampstead, expecting to buy a typical red-brick, turn-of-the-century pile. Then this house was gently introduced to them by their estate agent, on the basis that it ticked the boxes for their requirements: it was big (four bedrooms), had plentiful open space, and a garage that is now a studio for Scott, a product designer.

So they viewed it, and if Kate still wavered, then Scott was amazed. ‘The space was fantastic.’ They read up about the house, and its eminent architect, Ernst Freud, youngest son of Sigmund, and father of broadcaster Clement and painter Lucien. It was, they realised, pretty special, plus the nearby road, Frognal, boasted two other key Modern Movement homes – the Sun House by Oliver Hill, and 66 Frognal by Connell, Ward and Lucas, then Erno Goldfinger’s house at Willow Road, which influenced Freud, was nearby. This area was home to the enlightened and the moneyed, ‘Hampstead reflected the intellectual energies of the Thirties, particularly with the influx of German émigrés,’ says architectural historian Alan Powers.

Freud is ‘an interesting figure,’ reckons Powers. ‘He hasn’t had the highest profile but was a considerable architect.’ He can be seen in the context of the generation that includes Walter Gropius, Bernard Lubetkin, and Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff (the pair responsible for the De La Warr Pavilion) who ushered the Modern Movement, or International Style into inter-war England. The era is so-called because the leading protagonists made no reference to national vernacular in their work, the buildings carried the same themes regardless of location.

‘We weren’t so purist that we wanted the house to be a thirties recreation’

The entrance to the house is through a gate and past two rectangular lawns. There are two portholes and a cantilevered porch, and in the vestibule, original woodblock flooring. The house’s prior inhabitant had disavowed Freud’s Modernism. The cosy fussiness of English life had been taken on board, as if to moderate the home’s severity. Yet this was no white cube, Freud’s own house in St John’s Wood had the most extraordinary murals of fauns in a landscape, and Frognal Close was decorated in similar tastes. ‘We found some hand-painted wallpaper in a bamboo design,’ says Scott. There’s an echo of that on the decking outside the living room where bamboo trails up a wall, set off by an Isamu Noguchi sculpture.

Although the outside of the building is the most significant, the couple wanted to retain something of the Thirties throughout the build. They met six architects, and ‘some felt they had to make their mark,’ says Scott, with one adding a hi-tech glass box which was ‘missing the point. We didn’t want it to feel contemporary.’ Then they found architect Alice Brown, of AAB Architects. ‘She immediately understood the building and didn’t want to change it too much.’ Alice even found old photographs in the Royal Institute of British Architects library to support the listed building application.

Then the house began to unfurl. ‘We really started to like the interior spaces,’ says Scott. In San Francisco the couple had collected mid-century furniture, such as a Florence Knoll sofa, some of which has ended up in their Hampstead home, and so had a feel for the era. Also, the house is big. ‘It absorbs people really well,’ says Scott, ‘and even when it’s full it feels tranquil.’

The Grade II listing required the Voorhees to be sympathetic rather than strict. ‘We weren’t so purist that we wanted the house to be a Thirties recreation,’ says Scott. ‘We did have to live in it, after all.’ Despite the air and light of the Modern Movement, Freud’s original design produced somewhat poky rooms. ‘We needed it to work for us, but we have tried to articulate the rooms and doorways, which were all over the place,’ says Scott. So they have kept the spirit of Freud’s original design by putting in references to previous doors and partitions, while opening it out in the contemporary manner. For example, an old doorway from what was the lounge – now a study – has become an internal window.

The windows are modern aluminium jobs, and while the Voorhees believe that the originals would have been Crittall steel windows, they decided to keep them. ‘It was a case of not wanting to chuck perfectly good windows away,’ says Alice, and they are not so different as to be out of ‘keeping’, to use the conservation argot.

In the living room, the fire surround was changed from repro Georgian to limestone, and on some walls, they put oak veneer. ‘That’s influence from the Goldfinger house,’ says Scott. The kitchen is practical and faces south, and includes new stairs down to the garage/office – previously, the access came from the garden.

Upstairs, the bedrooms are arranged along a corridor. Globe lights keep the Thirties atmosphere alive, and the Voorhees’ art collection is resplendent on the walls. But the house’s seven decades have left few old fittings, bar one lovely curvaceous bathtub. On the third floor, the master bedroom leads out to a roof terrace, where the parapet has been beefed up with extra wire fencing to match the house’s partner over the road. ‘There’s a tremendous sense of space up here,’ says Scott.

So, does the couple regret buying a listed house, with the extra aggravation and form-filling? Not at all. ‘I don’t think there’s anything we’d have done differently,’ says Scott. ‘And we’ve learned a lot about the period through the work doing up the house, so we feel very much part of its history.’

Tip

‘Respect the integrity of the building and communicate that respect to the planning authority. And work with conservation officers, not against them. Don’t be combative’

Useful contacts

Architect: AAB Architects www.aabarchitects.co.uk
Stuctural engineer: Ingealtoir Consulting Structural Engineers 0207 401 9573
Main contractor:
Varsani Construction and Joinery 020 8346 4676
Flooring
: WW Flooring www.wwflooring.co.uk
External doors and windows: Alco Beldan www.alcobeldan.com
Ashphalt roofing: London Maintenance Company 020 88079806
Metalwork: LA Metalworks www.lametalworks.co.uk
Brickwork cleaning:
Mitre Construction www.mitreconstruction.co.uk

Words: Oliver Bennett Images: Chris Tubbs


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