Opinion piece provided by Finkernagel Ross, a RIBA chartered, London-based team of architects and interior designers with a distinct quality for design interpretation and architectural excellence.
The pleasure of delving into the past isn’t something we often get to talk about. It’s so easily pushed aside by more urgent conversations about design detailing, fixtures and fittings, and making the most of space and light. But we love this aspect of architecture, and now that we’re celebrating just about everything we love about the Elsworthy Collection, we’d like to tell you about its history too. We know that the story of a place – any place – starts long before we set foot there.
So, how did Primrose Hill come to be the leafy, peaceful enclave it is today? There was a time when Henry VIII hunted here, when young men fought their duels here, and when it was simply farmland. But from the beginning of the nineteenth century, the landscape all around was changing. The railways came, snaking their way out from the city, and one by one the landmarks of north London began to appear – Regent’s Park, Lords Cricket Ground and St John’s Chapel. Then in 1841 the government sealed the happy fate of these slopes by purchasing them from the Eton College Estate. By 1842 an Act of Parliament had secured them as public open space for everyone to enjoy.
As the years rolled on towards the end of the century, development elsewhere in London was gathering pace, and the pressure was on to develop around this public park too. The fact that Elsworthy Road and its neighbours evolved in the way they did is down to a remarkable man named William Willett. He was, interestingly, the ‘inventor’ of daylight saving, but he was also a man with a vision – of a ‘garden suburb’ characterised by tree-lined streets, substantial front gardens, elegant gateposts, and low stone walls. It was a vision that borrowed from the Arts and Crafts movement, with a free hand to take elements from other eras and other styles.
Later developments largely stayed true to Willett’s vision and, with the formation of the Elsworthy Road Conservation Area in 1973, the character and coherence of the streetscape were well and truly safe. Walking through the Conservation Area now, we can still appreciate this ‘Willett style’ – the Dutch gables, irregular windows, and decorative facades with details picked out in brick, stone, tile, stucco and timber. We appreciate the generous front gardens and the elegant frontages. There’s a pleasing rhythm to the streets, and the sense of a place removed from the bustle and relentless activity of elsewhere.
But not every house was loved and cherished in the way it deserved, and a few fell into disrepair. Sadly, this was the fate of two elegant houses on the little stretch of Elsworthy Road where we now find ourselves. By the time we arrived on the scene, there was almost nothing to salvage in terms of bricks and mortar. But there was a great deal to salvage in terms of legacy and history. We knew that to create something special here there would be hoops to jump through and hurdles to overcome, and we also knew it was the kind of challenge we thrived on. But that’s a story for another time.