Traditionally red-brick edifices with stucco plasterwork, marbled hallways and brass plaques on the doors, London’s mansion blocks were originally built as high-density housing for the middle classes. Their ultra- desirable locations and enduring charm ensure their continuing popularity today.
These imposing, typically red brick Victorian and Edwardian blocks, have cornered the market for what are now some of the most prestigious of London postcodes. They are a triumph of making virtue from necessity.
Built in the late 19th/early 20th century, when demand for a pied-a-terre in the capital was high, they changed perceptions of flats. Until then, flats were usually seen as cheap accommodation for those who couldn’t afford anything better, and building them was big risk for the developers of the day.
Luckily for us, and the London streetscape, builders’ took the plunge and in 1879 the building of the imposing Albert Hall Mansions began. With its views over Kensington Gardens, it remains a thing of beauty with Dutch gables, recessed balconies and even, still unusual for the time, lifts. Yet it had an uncertain start and was planned as three separate projects, with work on the second two sections on hold until every flat in the previous section was occupied.
The new development was, of course, a great success. It was closely followed by blocks in Mayfair, Regent’s Park, Kensington, Marylebone, Maida Vale, St John’s Wood, Belsize Park, Battersea, Fulham and Chiswick.
These purpose-built apartments were then on the city outskirts, catering for middle-class buyers who were starting to get used to commuting into work in the City of London via the growing railway network.
Over the ensuing decades, mansion blocks became the must-have dwelling for sophisticates in Victorian London.
Soon, these palatial apartments with their high ceilings, had made their way into the hearts of the aristocracy too. Lady Diana Spencer was famously given a mansion flat as a gift on her 18th birthday.
However, behind the grand facades, these flats often reflect a distant way of life. There may be a wealth of period details, such as picture rails, cornicing, fireplaces, large windows and high ceilings, but the spacious reception rooms and hallways came at a cost.
Kitchens and bathrooms are often pokey and dated, and plumbing can be, shall we say, interesting. On the other hand, as they were purpose-built as apartments, they often have better zoning – with living areas on one side and bedrooms on the other. The quality of soundproofing between floors can be enviable as well.
However, like all period buildings, they need a lot of maintenance and a maze of communal corridors all add to the costs. Draughty flats with old window-frames, cracks and gaps can go with the territory. They are however, fundamentally sound and should not present a particular insurance risk, especially if well managed and with a good claims history.
Service charge levels are commensurately high. Archaic leases and sometimes-difficult freeholders can be challenging when it comes to getting repairs done, and these blocks often employ the services of a porter, so do make sure you have employers’ liability cover in place if this is the case in your block.
The large number of units in a mansion block can make collective enfranchisement (some or all leaseholders buying and sharing the freehold), or claiming the right to manage, a complex and expensive processes.
Volunteering for a voluntary role on the private residents association or RMC is not a task to be taken on lightly. There are a lot of balls to keep in the air and a lot of people to try and keep happy.
Directors and Officers liability cover really should be considered in addition to the buildings insurance that leaseholders collectively pay for, if it’s not already in place.
Whatever the challenges, owning one of these mansion block flats in a prime location is a lifestyle choice that many people wouldn’t change for the world.
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