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Before & After in Fournier St

February 11, 2011
by the gentle author

1995, the sweatshop

2005, the music room

Ten years of renovation lies between these two photographs of the same room in Fournier St – between this snap of the abandoned sweatshop that John Nicolson purchased in 1995 and the swish interior shot by lifestyle photographer Jan Baldwin, that was one of a set taken in 2005 to celebrate the completion of the endeavour. Earlier this week, I showed you the collection of wallpapers dating from 1690 until 1960 and the curios from beneath the floorboards that John salvaged from this ancient house. And today you can see the “before” and “after” pictures which illustrate the breathtaking transformation that has been achieved, bringing new life back to what was once a derelict pile.

The tailoring industry had found its home there from 1720, through successive owners, Huguenot silk weavers, then Jewish tailors, and subsequently Bengali clothing maunfacturers, up until the nineteen nineties – when cheap manufacturing in the Far East made it no longer profitable to continue and the last owner went bankrupt, leaving the house in the ownership of the bank. No-one had lived there since the nineteen thirties, and by 1995 it was one among an entire terrace of abandoned buildings.

After the Fruit & Vegetable Market closed in 1991, many properties used to store fruit and herbs became empty in Spitalfields. The one next to John’s house had been a banana store, which gave him pause for thought when he first explored the property and discovered the yard overrun with exotic spiders. Yet in spite of this discovery, John had the courage to put his arm through a hole in the cladding on the wall on the first floor, reaching through into the darkness and touching what he believed to be eighteenth century panelling.

Many more discoveries were to be made over the coming years, as well as all the wallpapers and the curios mislaid under the floorboards in the previous three centuries. There was the lost cellar which had entirely filled up with silt. Above the false ceilings, there were grand box cornices installed by William Taylor, the joiner who built the house in 1721. Every room but one had its Georgian fireplace which had been covered over, still thick with soot. There was a mysterious brick flue from the cellar that was revealed to be ventilation for the dying of silks.

And all the doors had been taken off their hinges in the nineteenth century and hung the opposite way round from the previous century – because while the Georgians preferred doors to open into a room, offering a moment of grace as someone entered, the Victorians preferred their doors to open against the wall and wall straight into a room. “I’ve restored it to the Georgian etiquette with the doors opening into the rooms,” John admitted to me with a gracious smile, “to give my guests time to prepare for my imminent arrival.”

The house underwent successive alterations, at first to the panelling in the seventeen-eighties, and then the front wall had entirely been rebuilt in the eighteen twenties when a shopfront was addedJohn set about returned the house to its original proportions, removing partitions to create two rooms over each of the five floors and restoring missing panelling. He also demolished an outbuilding which filled the back garden and replaced the shopfront with a domestic facade consistent with the eighteen twenties work, including a new door case which derived its proportion and design from the eighteen twenties front door that survived. Elsewhere, John supplemented bead and butt boarding from 1900 and brought a sink back into use from this period, that had once served all the residents of the house when it was divided into tiny flats for Jewish refugees.

Today the house retains all its idiosyncratic appeal, a sympathetic amalgam of the successive alterations that speak of  its different inhabitants in Fournier St over the last three centuries. Yet now it is a home again, and thanks to ten years of conscientious and imaginative work by John Nicolson, an atmosphere of peace and domesticity reigns once more.

The house as John found it.

Reconstructing the domestic facade.

The rear elevation of 1720 with original windows flush with the level of the wall.

Alternating plain and barley twist spindles from 1720, as John discovered them.

The view from John’s bathroom to the spire of Christ Church, Spitalfields.

Original lead paintwork on this door, rehung in the nineteenth century to open towards the wall, in contrast to the eighteenth century etiquette, of doors always opening into the room – permitting a moment’s grace before someone entered.

The rear basement as John first saw it, once the silt had been dug out.

“Before” photographs copyright © John Nicolson

“After” photographs copyright © Jan Baldwin

You may also like to read my other Fournier St stories

The Wallpapers of Spitalfields

All change at 27 Fournier St

Rodney Archer, Aesthete

Marianna Kennedy, Designer

Jim Howett, Designer

Hugo Glendinning, Photographer

Andy Rider, Rector of Christ Church Spitalfields

13 Responses leave one →
  1. jeannette permalink
    February 11, 2011

    oh, thank you, sweatshop——–>music room and all the other remarkable renos — those beautiful worn old risers on the stairs — the skylights for the spire — so beautiful. silt in the basement! restoring the house front! turning the doors! such a resurrection really does go far to restore one’s faith in humankind.

  2. February 11, 2011

    Lovely house John. Remembering the exterior in the ‘before’ pics. And, the Market caff next door with Phyllis & Clyde.

  3. February 11, 2011

    A beautiful beautiful restoration indeed.

  4. Joan permalink
    February 11, 2011

    I used to enjoy watching John on BBC breakfast. I’d like to think that the infinitesimal portion of my BBC License fee that made its way into John’s pay packet contributed in a minute way to the renovation of this house. Its beautiful and must have taken such courage to do.

  5. BARBARA permalink
    February 11, 2011

    Breathtaking, indeed!! I gasped when I saw just the first two pictures. Thank you again for this interesting post. Good also to see that the neighbours look to be making improvements too. Barbara

  6. February 11, 2011

    A quite remarkable transformation. A great record of change.

  7. CornishCockney permalink
    February 11, 2011

    Wow, what a transformation. Makes me sad to think of how many original buildings have been destroyed over the decade,s when it just goes to show what can be done with even the most hopeless-looking of cases!

  8. Anne Forster permalink
    February 11, 2011

    Simply stunning!

  9. Fiona permalink
    March 6, 2011

    Wonderful to see a building like that come back to life. John’s no slouch at interior design either.

  10. September 5, 2013

    What a beautiful restoration. Done immaculately and with great taste and sense of style. Brava.

  11. Lindsay permalink
    June 19, 2015

    Absolutely fabulous restoration, and very inspiring. Great article.

  12. Irene permalink
    February 25, 2023

    Wow John. I totally love the difference you’ve made. It’s absolutely amazing.

  13. Bill permalink
    September 2, 2023

    What a house, staircase, window, setting, what a cat!

    Horrible, how there are people whose distinction is so fine that they make a mark in the life of their neighborhoods who can no longer afford their neighborhoods. This is a global phenomenon. I googled Tamzin Griffin, and there is a lot about her, so I hope she continues to do well in the world.

    That cat! What a puss!

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