One of the north’s best preserved Victorian homes is getting a new lease of life. Sharon Dale reports. Pictures by Tony Johnson.
Impulse buys are always a risk. If it’s shoes you can sling them to the back of the wardrobe or donate them to a charity shop but a Grade II* Victorian villa is another matter altogether, as Henry Kordowicz discovered.
He spotted the “For Sale” sign on Spenfield House when driving down Otley Road in Leeds and before he knew it he had bought one of the best-preserved Victorian homes in the north. It came with planning for conversion into apartments and permission for seven townhouses in its grounds.
“I’d been constructing commercial property for 30 years and I’d never considered a residential project but it was such an amazing place I bought it on impulse,” says Mr Kordowicz, who has had almost five years to ponder on a snap decision that has brought both pain and joy.
The joy is in the breathtaking interior architecture and wealth of ornate period features that still remain in the enormous 19,000 sq ft property. It was built between 1875 and 1877 for banker James Oxley by architect George Corson, who also designed the Grand Theatre in Leeds, along with the city’s central library. Oxley spared no expense and Spenfield’s highly decorative interiors are legendary.
The pain was the four-year period Mr Kordowicz spent in a Kafkaesque planning battle with Leeds City council.
“There were times when I regretted buying it. There were so many curveballs but we are finally well underway with the work and I’ve got back the excitement I felt when I first saw it,” he says.
Spenfield House, which sits in the Weetwood conservation area next to The Village hotel, is finally being converted into six apartments and a studio flat. The latter was Oxley’s opulent morning room.
Seven contemporary townhouses will be constructed in the grounds as Historic England wanted 21st century design rather than a Victorian pastiche.
All the properties, designed by Pearce Bottomley architects, will be decorated by Richard Grafton Interiors and are now on sale off-plan with Carter Jonas. Prices start at £190,000 for the studio and run to £650,000 for a three- bedroom apartment. The townhouses start from £495,000 and the project should be complete by January next year.
All the original features in Spenfield House, many of which reflect the Arts and Crafts movement, are protected thanks to the listing.
Oxley’s Peacock dining room has been preserved and its silk panels designed by William Morris will be cleaned and restored. The poet, John Betjeman, a keen architectural historian, declared this his favourite room when he visited Spenfield in 1968 to film a BBC documentary “A Poet goes North”.
The moulded ceiling in the entrance painted with the words “Welcome the Coming” and Speed the Parting Guest” will also stay, along with the friezes and the magnificent hall with Byzantine-style marble columns, coffered ceiling and stained glass lantern.
The drawing room and its ornate carved wood ceiling and marble dados will form part of an apartment as will the billiard room, which was inspired by the Alhambra Palace in Granada. These and many other examples of 19th century craftsmanship have excited would-be buyers.
“There is a huge amount of interest. People are itching to look round and one of the apartments is already reserved,” says estate agent Lucy Collinge of Carter Jonas.
Henry Kordowicz hopes that his preservation and sensitive restoration of the interiors will help calm the fears of those who were concerned about the building’s future.
“A lot of the features were covered and some were damaged after 1948 when it was converted for civic and corporate use. We are restoring and uncovering them so people will be able to see what is left in all its glory,” he says.
The cost of the restoration is eye-watering but it is nothing compared to the money lavished on the property when it was built.
When Oxley died at the age of 91 in 1928, the property passed to his son, Henry, a bachelor who left the house and its artwork to Leeds corporation when he died in 1948.
In 1975 it became the headquarters for Yorkshire Water and was later bought by Greenalls, which became DeVere. They built the hotel in the grounds and used the house as a HQ, health spa and training facility.
The building was heavily bastardised during its 60-plus years as a commercial property.
“There were partition walls and suspended ceilings, treatment rooms, locker rooms and toilets. There was also an awful extension put on,” says Mr Kordowicz, who assumed that he would be able to start on the project almost immediately.
However, the planning permission granted in 2009 had just three months left to run and the council encouraged Mr Kordowicz to start the process again with a similar scheme. He did so only to be turned down.
He says: “A couple of the staff in the planning department had changed, local residents campaigned against the plans and The Victorian Society suggested the house become a museum.
“It was frustrating and upsetting that local people thought I was going to destroy the heritage.”
It took almost four years to regain that permission and it was granted only on appeal to the government inspector.
“It was tortuous and tiresome trying to make people understand that you don’t have to ruin a building to bring it back to life, but we got there in the end. It’s been hard work and the cost of the work is phenomenal but I am proud of the part I have played in restoring Spenfield House. The years of neglect are over.”
*Apartments in Spenfield House start from £190,000 for a studio to £650,000 for a three-bedroom home.
The seven new-build homes at Spenfield Court include townhouses priced from £495,000 to £695,000. There are two, three and four-bedroom properties.
Richard Grafton Interiors is responsible for the interior design.
For details contact Carter Jonas New Homes North, tel: 01423 523423, www.spenfieldcourt.co.uk.