Modern makeovers: living in a piece of history

Conversions of historic buildings like the Woolworth Building and Battersea Power Station are attracting huge interest - and substantial prices.

October 15, 2015

Imagine waking up each day in London’s Highbury stadium, the listed, art deco scene of some of Arsenal football club’s greatest triumphs, and drinking your morning coffee looking out over where so many goals were scored.

Or perhaps you’d rather be rolling up the blinds to gaze down over New York from high up in the city’s famous Woolworth Building.

Indeed, growing numbers of historic buildings around the world, like Highbury, the Woolworth Building, Battersea Power Station and even former prisons such as Shepton Mallet in Somerset in the UK – once the address of the notorious Kray twins – are being transformed into residential apartments to be snapped up by a crowd of eager buyers drawn to the idea of living in a piece of history.

Something for everyone

The advantages of working with, and living in, a building with history have been driving the trend for ‘adaptive reuse’ since at least the 1970’s. But a trend that has taken in warehouse lofts and country houses has spread to buildings of many and often unexpected kinds – and there seems to be no sign of buyers’ appetites being sated.

“A classic example is Chicago, where the continuing conversion of the old industrial quarter into residential areas has been one of the strongest real estate trends of recent years,” says Steve Stratton, International Director, Headquarters Practice Group at JLL.

“As with all the best examples of residential redevelopment, there’s something for everyone: developers can take advantage of landmark designation of their property to create tax efficiencies, architects get to work with interesting and challenging spaces and materials, and buyers get the charm of often unique apartments with great connections.”

This uniqueness is key to the trend. When Kenneth S. Horn, the president of Alchemy Properties, got the opportunity to create apartments in the neo-Gothic tower of New York’s 1913 Woolworth Building, he told the New York Times: “The way we looked at it, they are almost like individual pieces of art. If you get one, you’re buying one in a rare collection.”

Opportunity to save a crumbling icon

London, too, is full of historic and often iconic buildings that have either been redeveloped already, or are being prepared for conversion. Few are as striking as Battersea Power Station, a vast, grade II* listed former power station which has long been a landmark on the Thames but which stopped generating electricity in 1983.

“The building is as recognizable in London as Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament, and is used constantly to represent the London skyline,” says Peter Gibney, Director – Residential Development at JLL.

When planners granted permission for its conversion into a mix of uses, including residential, Peter says, “it offered a unique opportunity to save a crumbling icon and leave a lasting future legacy.” The ‘one-off conversion’ will take its place in an ambitious redevelopment of the surrounding site, and, as Peter says, “the opportunities and challenges are enormous”.

“The building offers incredible unique spaces, such as the Coal Shoot and Wash Tower Terraces, but also challenges such as the depth of the Switch Houses and the placement of the windows, which are to be retained under the grade II* listed status.”

Keeping buildings alive

Battersea Power Station, London’s authorities and developers agree, can only be saved by extensive development – a familiar story for many historic buildings.

“There’s no doubt there are buildings which would simply decay if they were not redeveloped,” says Simon Hodson, JLL Head of Residential Land.

“People shouldn’t underestimate the architectural and material challenges that come with converting older buildings – working with the bricks and glass of listed buildings, for example – or the benefits that successful conversions bring, in terms of keeping a building in use.”

A residential redevelopment is often the most, or only, economically viable way to keep a building in use. Simon cites the Trent Park Campus in North London as an example – a mansion house set in 51 acres of private parkland, the property is being redeveloped as housing following years of uncertainty.

When approved and completed, the redevelopment will breathe new life into the original building and the grounds as a whole, Simon says. “This building has had a long history. People will want to become part of it by living here.”

By living there, they’ll be adding to it, too.

Like what you read?

You may also like