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History of St Leonard’s Place
11:53am Friday 13th July 2012 in Features
ST Leonard’s Place, so long the home of City of York Council, could be turned into a luxury hotel once the authority moves out. STEPHEN LEWIS looks at the building’s history – and talks to the company behind the plans – while ANTHONY CHAPPEL-ROSS took the pictures.
BACK in the 1830s, York’s city fathers had a problem. During the previous century, the city had reinvented itself as an elegant Georgian retreat for the wealthy: a “social centre of the north”, where country gentlemen chose to build their town houses.
Elegant Georgian streets such as Micklegate and Castlegate had been put up; many of the city’s finest buildings – such as the Assembly Rooms and Mansion House – had been built; and York even had a new riverside promenade, New Walk. But by the 1830s, confined within its walls, York was growing congested.
The city corporation decided on a programme of road-building. Parliament Street was widened, and on the north edge of the city a new street was planned to link up with Bootham.
St Leonard’s Place, it was to be called. And since there was to be a new road, the city steward Peter Atkinson decided that there might as well be some new houses as well, so the corporation could make a bit of money.
There were three options for the new street. The one the city council initially approved involved demolishing part of the city walls and removing Bootham Bar. This being York, however, a “resistance group” of outraged locals – including the Archbishop of York, Edward Harcourt – was formed. A compromise route was agreed which saw only a small part of the bar walls knocked down. Bootham Bar survived.
The route for the new street agreed, it only remained to build the houses. A young architect, John Harper, was engaged, and he designed a curving terrace of nine elegant neo-classical houses, the one in the middle significantly larger than the others. With its columns, its stucco and its magnificent mansard roof, the new terrace was the perfect gentleman’s address. “In fact, it looked like a big palace,” says Janine Riley, a conservation architect employed by City of York Council.
While the front of the crescent was all of a piece, inside, the nine houses were subtly different. The individual owners appointed their own designers to finish them – so the elegant grand staircases, the plaster cornices and pillars, the moulded ceilings and marble fireplaces, are all different.
Fast forward to 2012, and this neo-classical “palace” is looking distinctly shabby. For decades, it has been the home of the city council. Where once this was nine separate houses, a passageway was long ago knocked through on the ground floor so council staff could get from one end of the building to the other without having to repeatedly go in and out.
Cheap partitions have been used to divide up the generously-proportioned rooms; floors are covered in shiny lino or inexpensive carpet squares; and the colours are institutional beiges or greys. The result is a rambling warren of municipal offices.
The elegant crescent is still there, however, not far beneath the surface. You can still tell, from subtle changes in the style of moulded ceilings, when you move from one “house” to another. And from the upper floors, there are what must be among the best views in York. Look out of the front windows, and you see the Minster rising up in all its glory behind the Theatre Royal. Look out from the back, and you have the no-less stunning sight of medieval King’s Manor.
Now, with the city council due to have completed the move to its new West Offices HQ by next March, there is a real chance for St Leonard’s place to be restored to its full, neo-classical glory.
The council sold the whole Grade II* listed crescent – including nos 2 and 4 Museum Street – to Leeds-based developer Rushbond in 2006. And Rushbond has now submitted a planning application and associated application for listed building consent, to turn the entire crescent into an 88-bed hotel.
In one way, the best thing would have been to turn the street back into houses, admits Janine Riley. “But the city sees this as being a cultural area, what with the art gallery, the university buildings, Museum Gardens and so on.”
So a hotel it will be. But even as a hotel, it should be possible to restore much of the terrace’s original character, Janine says: especially if it is done carefully.
This can’t be just any bland chain hotel with standard-sized rooms, however. If it is to work, it needs a bespoke approach, Janine says. “So it will need to be higher-end.”
There are still problems: the main one being how to get from one part of the building to another, especially on the upper floors.
At the moment, you go from room to room. Obviously, once these offices are turned into bedrooms, you won’t be able to do that.
Janine’s preferred option would have been to use the ground and third floors to go along the hotel, and the stairs in each house to get up or down to rooms.
Rushbond, however, insist that won’t work.
Their plans include knocking a passage the length of the terrace on the first floor.
That will mean slicing away a section of the first floor rooms fronting on to St Leonard’s Place.
And that will damage the rooms’ elegant proportions – as well as cutting through their moulded ceilings.
Then there is the question of parking. Ultimately, the best solution may be to use the small car park at the top of the terrace for valet-style parking, with cars being driven away to a public car-park once guests have arrived.
Nevertheless, despite the problems, this could make a stunning hotel.
It is the details that make it so unique. Look out over King’s Manor from a second-floor room at the back, and there is a distinct ripple in the original 1830s glass which somehow improves the view even more.
The grand staircases are cantilevered – made of slabs of stone sticking out from the wall – and the iron stair-rails in each “house” are unique.
Up on the third floor, deep beneath the mansard roof, the rooms are supported by great wooden beams. And even the basement has a charm of its own.
Much of it is dank and dingy at the moment. But there are rooms that look up through lightwells to the street above. Not everybody’s cup of tea, perhaps: but certainly not your bog-standard hotel room.
The first floor of what was No 5 St Leonard’s Place is perhaps the best, however.
This was the biggest of the nine houses that made up the Crescent: and because it was so big, but had so little garden, the York Corporation couldn’t find anyone willing to buy it.
Eventually, it became the Yorkshire Club. On the first floor, running the entire width of No 5, was a large room looking out over the Theatre Royal.
In the council’s hands, it has been divided up into three, using cheap partitions.
Under the Rushbond plans, those partitions would be knocked down to make an elegant sitting area looking out over the Theatre Royal. The perfect place for the discerning visitor to relax after a day’s sightseeing. “You couldn’t really get a better site for a hotel,” says Rushbond’s Mike Hartley. Nor could you.
Developer’s track record of refurbishing listed buildings
Leeds-based Rushbond has refurbished a number of listed buildings – including the civic court in Leeds, converted into offices for Leeds Metropolitan University.
It has also been chosen by Wakefield council as preferred bidder to redevelop the former Leeds University Bretton Park campus in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, a scheme which will involve refurbishing Grade II* listed Bretton Hall as a country house hotel.
• To find out more about Rushbond, visit rushbond.co.uk
Real interest in top-class hotel for city
Rushbond, the Leeds-based developer which bought St Leonard’s Place in 2006, admits it doesn’t yet have an operator signed up to take on the hotel.
However, the company is having a “number of discussions” with potential operators, says Rushbond development director Mike Hartley.
They are all operators who would be looking at the “top end of the market”. So if the scheme does go ahead, any hotel here would probably be an upmarket one.
Nationally, there is little demand for new hotels, Mr Hartley admits. That is not the case in York, however. With London and Edinburgh, York is one of three areas where there is real interest from hotel operators.
The planning application submitted by Rushbond is for “change of use”. But because St Leonard’s Place is Grade II* listed, that is accompanied by a listed building consent application. And because of that, there is a fair amount of detail.
The plans envisage 88 bedrooms, spread across all five floors of both St Leonard’s place and 2/4 Museum Street.
The hotel entrance and main reception would be at 9 St Leonard’s, where the council reception is now. Parking would probably be by a valet system, or by arrangement with a local car park.
There would be several meeting rooms on the ground floor, as well as a public restaurant on the corner of St Leonard’s Place and Museum Street, and a hotel dining area and function room at the back, in what were originally the Yorkshire Club’s billiard rooms. A 1960s building next to the old billiard rooms would be demolished and replaced by a dining extension with a roof terrace overlooking King’s Manor.
Details will only be finalised – in discussion with the city council and English Heritage – once an agreement has been signed with a hotel operator, however.
Plans were lodged with the city council a few weeks ago. All being well, they are likely to be discussed by planners on August 23.
St Leonard’s Place will be empty from next March, by which time all council staff should have moved into the authority’s new West Offices HQ.
Assuming an operator has come on board by then – and providing planning approval has been granted – it should take between 12 and 18 months to convert St Leonard’s Place into a hotel, Mr Hartley says – at a cost of “millions of pounds”.