Du Cane Court, Balham SW12
Art Deco apartment block
Architect: G. Kay Green
Year built: 1935-1938
Du Cane Court is a distinctive 1930s Art Deco block on Balham High Road. Reportedly the largest privately owned block of flats under one roof in Europe, its distinctive footprint was used as a navigational landmark by German pilots bombing London during the Second World War and was also a popular place to live for many music hall stars in the 1930s and 1940s.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Art Deco as I find the aesthetic a bit too fussy and vintagey but Du Cane Court is such an iconic block in such a convenient location that when two flats came up for sale in my price range last year, I was intrigued enough to want to view them.
First impressions were good. The block, vast and uniform, looked imposing from the road and was complemented by some attractive Japanese-style landscaping. The glamorous if slightly kitschy communal lobby was like something out of a Agatha Christie novel set in the 1930s with period furnishings, a lot of curved surfaces, pillars and gold accents.
The flats themselves were rather less impressive. The first was a 2 bedroom flat on one of the lower floors of the building, accessed via a very long, drably carpeted corridor. Like a lot of flats from this era, it had a lateral layout with all of the rooms lined up in a row, accessed via one long corridor down the side.
The combination of layout and the fact it was on a low floor gave the flat a slightly oppressive, gloomy feel. Looking out of the windows into the internal courtyard and the hundreds of other flats in the block (all of the rooms had the same outlook given the lateral layout) was a bit prison-like.
The other flat was a self contained split-level maisonette with its own front door accessed via the side of the block. This was marginally better but there was something strange about the way it had been converted and renovated, particularly the downstairs kitchen and living area which was sort of open plan but sort of not. The existing owner had tried to decorate in a way that was sympathetic to the era but the aesthetic wasn’t quite to my taste.
Although both flats were reasonably affordable and in a really convenient location from my perspective, I didn’t like either of them enough to put in an offer.
I’ve since seen a really nice example of a one bedroom flat in the block on the Modern House website. The vendor had done a very high-spec all-white renovation job, which gave the place a far more contemporary (yet still fitting) look compared to the slightly dodgy ones that I saw. Anyone seeking to renovate their Du Cane Court flat should take note!
Hyndewood, Forest Hill, SE23
Mid-century extended end of terrace house
Architect: Norman Starrett
Year built: 1950s-1960s
Due to a happy change of circumstances, I’ve changed the focus of my longstanding property search from a modernist property for one to a modernist property for two.
I’ve always quite liked Forest Hill as an area – it’s commutable into the city, it has nice green spaces (including the Horniman Museum gardens with that fantastic view across to the city and Dawsons Heights), the amenities are decent with a nice mix of pointless artisan and essential shops and most importantly, it has a fair amount of nice mid century modern housing stock, including one of those Austin Vernon and partners blocks that I went to see last year and rows of less well known but still interesting-looking terraced houses.
This house was at the end of a Norman Starrett-designed terrace down a very quiet little close containing a cluster of mid century houses and flats. It looked enormous from the floorplan due to a ground floor extension on the side of the house and appeared to have retained a lot of original 1960s features, including a very stylised kitchen and a lot of wood panelling.
In person, the house was even perhaps bigger than I was expecting it to be. The amount of floor space on the ground floor alone was probably bigger than a lot of two bedroom flats in London that I’ve seen, containing two adjoining reception rooms (both with original parquet flooring), that very retro kitchen, a utility room and a downstairs bathroom. Patio doors led out onto a small paved garden.
Upstairs were three bedrooms (two double, one single) and a further bathroom (this one with a very period avocado suite) and another bedroom up a further flight of stairs at the top of the house.
The seller was an elderly lady who had lived in the flat for over thirty years and while she clearly hadn’t updated anything during that period, she had maintained everything pretty well, which meant that the house was a nicely preserved time capsule. With a small amount of cosmetic updating (repainting the walls, replacing the carpets upstairs and probably that avocado bathroom) and a bit of good mid century furniture, the house would have been absolutely beautiful.
The house was also quite keenly priced at £600k, a decision on the seller and agent’s part to get as many offers as possible (most likely over the asking price), allowing for the property to be sold as soon as possible. We didn’t end up putting in an offer as the timing wasn’t quite right (and we had a fair amount of competition from other buyers) but this house will certainly serve as a benchmark for the purposes of our property search going forward.
Church Garth, Pemberton Gardens N19
Mid-century apartment block
Architect: Unknown to me
Year built: 1960s
I have been intrigued by this 1960s apartment block in Archway ever since I saw it featured in an episode of Location, Location, Location a couple of years ago. The episode featured a nice thirty-something, creative couple seeking a 2 bedroom flat in London for about £300k (this must have been more than five years ago because that figure seems ridiculous now). The flat they ended up buying was really attractive with a good, logical layout (a nice big hall with decently proportioned rooms branching off it), parquet flooring, a balcony and lots of natural light.
Five or so years down the line, a 2 bedroom flat came in the block came onto the market at £485k. Given the state of the ridiculously inflated market, I actually thought this was a very reasonable price for the area and went to have a look.
The exterior of the building, the garden and thecommunal areas were exactly how I remembered them from the programme: 1960s-looking but not overly stylised. The location was also very good: about two minutes’ walk from the tube and on an attractive residential street opposite a church (probably how it got its name).
Unfortunately, the flat itself was not great. While it was very bright, with light coming in from two sides, it had a different layout to the one featured on Location, Location, Location, with an L-shaped corridor as a hall, a long narrow kitchen and a small second bedroom. The kitchen and bathroom needed replacing, everything needed repainting (and possibly replastering in places) and it was stuffed to the gills with the current tenants’ belongings (the living room was being used as a third bedroom).
I didn’t take any photos because it would have been too intrusive to do so but I did find some photos online of a recently renovated version of the same flat which sold for £515k:
Looking at these photos, it’s difficult to believe it’s basically the same flat as the one I saw today – given the choice between the two, I think I would pay an extra 30k for all of that work to have been done by the time I moved in.
I’m going to continue to keep an eye on the block to see if something slightly less decrepit than the one I saw comes onto the market.
Trevelyan House, Bethnal Green EC2
Grade II-listed apartment block
Architect: Denys Lasdun
Year built: 1958
Although I was a bit underwhelmed by the flat I saw in Keeling House last year (in summary, I loved the building but found the refurbished communal areas a bit naff and the flat itself a bit cramped and expensive), I was very intrigued when a flat came up for sale in Trevelyan House, Denys Lasdun’s original brutalist “cluster block” in Bethnal Green.
Trevelyan House and nearby Sulkin House have the same innovative design and build as their more glamorous younger sibling: the 24 flats are arranged in three separate eight-storey blocks which form a butterfly shape around a central core containing the lift and stairwells. This layout means that only three flats share a communal landing (rather than dozens of flats sharing a long communal walkway) and the flats get plenty of light from several sides.
Like Keeling House, Trevelyan House is constructed from reinforced concrete and brick and has a similarly striking aesthetic. Although the block was Grade II-listed in 1998, the original steel windows were replaced at some point with cheap-looking uPVC and the fact that the block is still used as social housing means that it isn’t quite as well maintained as Keeling House, which was converted into a “luxury” development in the early 2000s. There is no flashy lobby and concierge here: once you get past the main gate, the communal areas are as basic and concrete as they come.
The flat on the market that we viewed was a two bedroom, split-level maisonette on the second and third floors of the block. Layout-wise, it was very similar to the one that I saw in Keeling House with the living room, balcony and kitchen on the lower floor and the bedrooms and bathroom on the upper floor.
Despite the rather depressing decor and aforementioned uPVC windows, I actually thought the flat was superior in a number of ways to the one in Keeling House. It seemed to be larger for starters: whilst the Keeling House flat squeezed a compact open plan kitchen into the living room; the Trevelyan House had a similarly sized living room and a decently sized separate kitchen in addition.
Upstairs, the landing area, bedrooms and bathroom also appeared to be slightly more generously sized in the Trevelyan House flat. In addition, the views from the balcony and windows of the Trevelyan House flat were better (not that you could see anything through the yellowing net curtains). The key difference that made the Trevelyan House flat more appealing, however, was the price. Whilst hardly cheap at £435,000 for an ex local authority flat “requiring modernisation”, it was more than £150,000 cheaper than the Keeling House flat.
This beautifully remodelled but otherwise identical flat that I found online gives an idea of what can be achieved with the space with a bit of structural work (the bulk of the effort appears to have gone into reconfiguring the kitchen into a cube which opens out into the main living area).
The work cost £80,000 which means that if I bought the flat that we viewed and renovated it to a similar standard, it would work out as being significantly cheaper than buying a decrepit flat in Keeling House. Unfortunately I came to the decision that I wasn’t ready for such a big project and passed on making an offer (though if the remodelled one came onto the market, that would be a very different story).
Linley Court, Dulwich SE19
Mid-century apartment block
Architect: Unknown to me
Year built: 1950s-1960s
I went to see a flat in Linley Court last year after my third attempt at buying a flat in the Dulwich Wood Estate fell through (as an aside, that flat has just come back onto the market, now with an extended lease but £50k more expensive than the price at the time). Located just a few streets away and 1960s-looking in style, Linley Court seemed like the next best thing at the time.
Set back from the road in a leafy close, one of the best things about Linley Court was the picturesque, almost Disney-esque setting. The block itself, which appeared to be part of a small development of flats and three-storey townhouses clad in rather Span-like terracotta tiling, was less remarkable but nice-looking enough. The same couldn’t be said of the communal areas and stairways, which were in a complete state.
Things, however, improved once you got into the flat, which was split over two floors and unusually large with three bedrooms and a separate utility room off the kitchen (a luxury almost completely unheard of in London flats). Whilst it wasn’t nearly as striking as the flat I’d attempted to buy on the Dulwich Wood Estate, the living space was generous, light-filled and dual aspect. I also liked some of some of the original features, such as the built-in wooden shelving unit separating the kitchen and living area.
I can’t really remember why I didn’t end up making an offer on this flat. Writing about it now, I remember actually quite liking it at the time! It may have been the price, which was around £500k, which seemed like quite a lot for the area and significantly more expensive than the flat that I’d missed out on.
Keeling House, Bethnal Green E2
Grade II listed apartment block
Architect: Denys Lasdun
Year built: 1954-1957
I’ve always liked the idea of living in Keeling House: it is, in my opinion, one of the best looking modernist tower blocks in London and handily, its Bethnal Green location would be within walking distance of the office. As a result, I jumped at the chance at viewing one of the flats when it came onto the market earlier this year as part of my ill-fated property search.
Whilst first impressions of the area immediately surrounding Keeling House weren’t overwhelmingly positive, the exterior of building did not disappoint. Originally built between 1954 and 1957, Denys Lasdun’s design for Keeling House shunned the traditional slab block in favour of an unusual winged plan (four blocks arranged around a central service tower), giving the building the appearance of a futuristic concrete windmill. The winged plan also means that there are only four flats per communal stairwell, originally designed to encourage the occupants of the flats to interact with each other.
The communal areas were renovated in 2001 when the building was converted from social housing into a block of luxury flats. I think the architects, Munkenbeck + Marshall, may have gone a bit overboard with this task when it came to the downstairs lobby: the bridge, trickling water features and stone sculptures simultaneously evoke a Pierce Brosnan-era James Bond film and a corporate waiting room. I thought it was all a bit unnecessary and definitely not in keeping with the period of the original architecture.
The flat that I was viewing was a split-level 2-bed occupying the second and third floors of the building. Apart from the ground floor flats and the penthouse that Munkenbeck + Marshall tacked onto the top of the building, I understand that all of the flats have the same layout. The lower floor of the flat consisted of an open plan living area and kitchen with a balcony and the upper floor contained the bedrooms and (very small) bathroom.
I must say I was slightly underwhelmed by the flat, which felt a little cramped and tired. The bathroom suite and admittedly well designed and attractive kitchen units (built into recesses in the walls to save space) clearly hadn’t been updated since 2001 and there was a distinct lack of storage, particularly when it came to the bedrooms. The outlook wasn’t fantastic either (other estates or the tops of other estates) though a flat on one of the higher floors would probably have been much better in this regard.
At the original £600k asking price, I wouldn’t have had any funds left to restore it to its former glory though I understand the seller may have since accepted an offer at around £580k.
Frobisher Court, Forest Hill SE23
Apartment block forming part of Dulwich Wood Park estate; winner of Civic Trust Award 1964
Architect: Austin Vernon & Partners
Year built: 1959
I’ve wanted to buy one of these Austin Vernon & Partners flats in the Dulwich Wood Estate ever since I went to see one in Raleigh Court last year. Even though that particular example was a bit decrepit with rubbish views into other people’s flats on the estate, the combination of the pleasant, almost wooded setting, the mid century communal areas and the spacious, open layout of the flat led me to keep an eye out for other flats on the estate coming onto the market.
One year down the line, I’ve seen six other examples of the same flat, all of which have been pretty much identical in layout but have varied dramatically in condition from perfection to complete wreckage. Having had bids rejected on two of the better ones and a sale fall through on another (I’m still reeling from the sheer injustice of that experience), I decided to view a 7th floor flat in Frobisher Court that had just come on the market.
Although Frobisher Court looked almost identical to all of the other blocks congregated around Gipsy Hill I’d been to see, it was actually situated a couple of miles north from the rest in the slightly more affluent Forest Hill. The facade and communal areas looked familiar with the slightly oppressive patterned sixties tiling and juddering lift present and correct but this particular building seemed particularly well kept with not a spot of peeling paint or limp indoor plant to be found.
The flat itself, which was situated at the very top of the building, was pretty stunning. It had the same open plan layout of all of the others I’d seen but appeared to have an additional bay window with great, far-reaching views of the surrounding area.
The current owners had made bold but period-appropriate design choices, including some great built-in furniture (I loved the bespoke hallway unit) and coloured feature walls. Unlike all of the other flats of this type I’d seen, the solid wood flooring continued beyond the main living areas into the bedrooms, which somehow made the flat seem more spacious.
The only downside to this particular flat, which I loved and could completely picture myself living in, was the asking price: it was an absolutely ridiculous £195,000 more expensive than the last one of these flats I viewed. I appreciate that you sometimes need to pay a premium for a well-presented property but in my opinion, no amount of nice built-in furniture or pretty views is worth an additional £195,000. The last time I checked, this flat was still on the market. If the owner were willing to reduce the price to something more sensible, I may well make an offer.
Orchard Close, Honor Oak Park, London SE3
Seventies terraced bungalow
Year built: Late 1970s
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I turned up to view this bungalow in Honor Oak Park. My hopes weren’t especially high: the estate agent’s photos were rubbish to the extent that it was impossible to tell what the bungalow looked like from the outside, it didn’t look like there was a lot of space judging from the floor plan and I knew nothing about the area. However, the blurb’s description of an “open plan living area with a vaulted ceiling” and the idea of owning a freehold property in London for under £500,000 was enough of an incentive to go and take a look.
First impressions were mixed. The area seemed pleasant enough and there was a leafy park just across the road from property. Contrary to expectations, the bungalow wasn’t a detached property and was instead part of an unusual terrace of bungalows, all joined up in a slightly higgledy-piggledy manner. The triangular pitched roofs gave the development a jagged silhouette that wasn’t entirely pleasing to the eye.
The bungalow’s main entrance was a sliding patio-type door onto which a slightly makeshift-looking porch had been built. The sliding door opened straight onto the main living area, which was actually a pretty unusual and impressive space thanks to the vaulted ceiling and the amount of natural light coming in through the patio door and skylights. The rest of the property was more standard: two smallish bedrooms, an inoffensive but slightly dated bathroom and a small walled garden. A further exit next to the bathroom opened onto a narrow passage which ran alongside the whole length of the terrace, apparently for fire safety reasons.
I did like this property on the whole. I was quite taken by the main living area and the good decorative order overall was such that I could imagine moving straight in with all of my things without even needing to paint a wall. However, rather typically, it had been snapped up by the time I’d even thought about a second viewing.
Apologies for the appalling image quality in this post – my expectations were clearly so low that I didn’t even bother to bring my proper camera along to the viewing.
Hallgate, London SE3
‘Span’ flat in Grade II listed Hallgate, which forms part of the Cator Estate
Architect: Eric Lyons
Year built: 1950s
My interminable search for a modernist property, which has now been going on since June 2015, brought me to yet another Span development, this time in Blackheath.
Hallgate is a Span development of flats forming part of the Cator Estate: accessed via Blackheath Park, a wide and tree-lined private drive, it feels tranquil and removed from the main roads, traffic and any commercial activity. Hallgate shares many features with Parkleys in Ham including those elegant, open porches, wide rectangular windows and flat roofs but the choice of materials and colour palette (white cladding, sand-coloured brick and grey slate) gives Hallgate a less aggressively retro, more timeless appearance.
Further distinctive Span housing lies behind Hallgate along The Hall, a snaking road lined with rows of neat, boxy two-storey houses, which looked almost exactly like the Span houses that I visited in Teddington and a further cluster of flat-roofed apartment blocks arranged around a communal green, which looked like those in Parkleys except these had a striking, rather curious grey-and-green colour scheme. The communal grounds are typical for a Span development: lushly planted and well maintained, thanks to an astronomical service charge.
Unfortunately, although I liked the setting and the development’s exterior, I found the Hallgate flat itself rather disappointing. Whilst the living room and appended dining area room had a pleasant outlook onto the estate and was positioned to catch plenty of light, the bedrooms were small (the second bedroom was particularly box-like) and the kitchen, bathroom and decor in general were all a bit 2001. Creaky timber-framed windows aside, which have to be retained for Grade-listing purposes, I don’t think I saw a single remaining original feature.
Another downside was the price. It was right at the top end of my budget and paying that amount would have meant having to live in the early-noughties timewarp until I’d saved enough to restore it to its former glory. I decided pretty quickly that I wouldn’t be making an offer and it was snapped up the next day in any event.
Whilst the flat in Langham House Close wasn’t quite the right fit for me, I was quite taken by its futuristic-looking mid century modern style.
I was determined not to use the expression “get the look” but this is effectively the purpose of this blog entry:
- TEJN faux sheepskin rug, IKEA
- Sisal flooring, buy something similar at urbaneliving.co.uk
- Arne Jacobsen Grand Prix chair, Skandium
- Vitsoe 606 Universal Shelving System, Vitsoe
- Earl Saarinen Tulip round dining table, TwentyTwentyOne
- Artek 900 Tea Trolley, Pink Apple Designs
- Eames Modernica rocker, SCP
- Arne Jacobsen floor lamp, Skandium
- 101 Moov sofa, TwentyTwentyOne