Tuesday, March 17, 2015

St. Giles House: An English Country House Reborn

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Isabella reporting,

The twentieth century was not kind to the great English country house. After flourishing for generations and (in some cases) hundreds of years, many such houses fell prey to two world wars, a economic depression, death duties, development, and a permanent cultural changes. Interest in British heritage sites fell, to be replaced with a post-war desire for the new and modern. The once-beautiful and imposing country seats became faded white elephants that were impossible to staff and maintain. Shuttered and empty, many became derelict, were burned by arsonists, or simply were torn down.

I've written other blog posts about one country house that is in melancholy ruin (Mavisbank), another saved by a TV show (Highclere Castle), and yet another that's begun a new life welcoming brides, hunting parties, and corporate retreats (Ugbrooke Park). Last week I learned about one more, St. Giles House, whose once-bleak future has been turned around by its enterprising young owner.

That owner is Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury, left, who recently made the long trip to Winterthur Museum to share the story of his family's country house, and a bit of his own life, too. St. Giles House is both a legacy and a sizable responsibility, neither of which Lord Shaftesbury, as the younger son, expected to be his. After finishing his education, he followed his passion for music and relocated to New York, where he found success as a d.j. But a double tragedy changed everything: within a six-month span in 2005, his father was murdered (by his father's estranged wife and her brother), and his older brother died of a heart attack. At twenty-six, he was suddenly the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury, a title that dates back to the 17th century.

Along with the earldom came St. Giles House and the surrounding 5,500 acre estate. The land had been in the family for over 400 years. The present house replaced an earlier manor house, and was built by the first earl beginning in 1650. Successive generations of Ashley-Coopers added on to the house and remodeled it to suit their times and tastes. The most aggressive improvements (and perhaps the least sensitive) came in the 19th c., right, when two pointed towers and outsized bay windows were added to the classically proportioned facade, and the warm red brick was covered with cement render, a damaging process that trapped water in the walls.

As with so many country houses, St. Giles began a slow decline throughout the 20th c., serving as a wartime hospital and a girl's school, each adding another layer of wear and tear. Death duties forced the gradual sale of parcels of the original 15,500 estate, reducing it by nearly two-thirds. By the time the 10th earl inherited the estate in 1961, the house itself was suffering from dry rot and an aging roof, and had become impractical for living. The earl moved his family to the dower house, and began to tackle the repair and restoration of the main house.

He began with enthusiasm, tearing down the Victorian towers and repairing the most obvious needs. But the challenges and expense of the project proved too great, and in frustration he finally abandoned it, sealing off exposed walls and leaving the house empty. Many of the original furnishings and works of art were sold to pay expenses. By the time the present earl inherited the house, lower left, the grounds were overgrown and the house had further deteriorated, and the recent deaths of his father and brother had mired the estate in further death duties.

He was faced with an obvious choice. He could sell the house and land, or he could finish the restoration that his father had begun. He decided, in his words, to "go for it."

In preparation for the financial battles the house would require, he attended the London Business School and earned a Masters in Business Administration. A serious riding accident that nearly left him paralyzed only served to increase his resolve. After marrying in 2010, he and his wife decided the best way to become truly part of the restoration was to live in St. Giles House. An architect managed to carve out a modest but livable space for them in the house, and the project began in earnest.

With funding from extensive loans and grants secured, a team of master craftspeople and artisans, construction specialists, architects, and historians worked first to stabilize the house, and then to restore the first floor rooms one by one. The library was the first room finished; in a major triumph, the first earl's books were discovered in long-ago storage, and returned to the newly restored shelves. Carved woodwork was reclaimed, elaborate plasterwork repaired, and custom woven silk damask hung on the walls. It's a painstaking, on-going process, and while the principal rooms are finished, the second floor of the house remains to be done, as well as other, smaller buildings on the grounds.

Working with Natural England, plans were also undertaken to restore the neglected grounds around the house. The goal is to return to the 18th c. parkland, including serpentine lakes and streams, grottoes, and follies, and to recreate the landscape in a way that's both beautiful and welcoming.

At the same time, the estate began to support itself in more modern ways. About half of the land is now commercially farmed. Systems to heat and cool the house are supplied through renewable energy solutions and other new technology, including solar panels and water source heat pumps from the estate's lake. There are sponsored events on the grounds as diverse as music festivals, a half-marathon, and a chili festival, as well as weddings and corporate events. The goal is not to isolate the estate, but to make the grounds and house a part of the community.

Yet for Lord Shaftesbury and his young family - which now includes a son and daughter - St. Giles House is home. While their ancestors would have maintained a sizable household, today there are no legions of footmen, parlor-maids, or gardeners. Instead there is only one "amazing" cleaner in charge of the principal rooms, one groundsman to mow the grass, and a part-time gardener.

"I want St. Giles House to be an inviting place," Lord Shaftesbury says proudly. "I want people to come here to take time out, to reflect, and to be inspired."

For more information and photographs of St. Giles House, see the website here.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful story. Kudos to His Lordship for saving his ancestors' home and not "selling out" to developers.

Kim in Baltimore said...

Thanks for sharing this story. I will share with my Brit mom, who lives in Florida, but returns to the UK each summer to enjoy its history.

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