Notebook:

A Lesson in Chelsea History

30/05/11

Tapping away on gleaming iMacs, children from Hill House International Junior School are learning in one of their new classrooms, in a Grade II listed building in Radnor Walk. Known as The Founders’ Hall and recently developed for the school by Chelsea based Le Lay Architects, the building’s story reveals the changing face of the area through the centuries.

The site is in the former grounds of a manor house, which Richard Smith acquired in the 1830s. Project architect Jonathan Goode says, “He was essentially an entrepreneur. He was looking at ways of exploiting the property and getting a commercial return from it.” Smith’s enterprises in the grounds over the years included a pleasure garden, a wash baths for working men, a theatre, a tavern and a dance hall.

While there are no records showing exactly where the Manor House Public Baths was, excavations revealed an earlier structure on the site of The Founders’ Hall and Goode explains, “It’s our best hunch that the baths was probably on the site of the halls.”

It was commercially unsuccessful – “I think it just proved to be too expensive for the market that he was aiming at,” says Goode – and Smith went on to convert it into The Manor House Theater, which also failed.

Drawing on Chelsea’s reputation as an entertainment district, Smith building the Commercial Tavern – now The Chelsea Potter – and dance and entertainment venue the Commercial Rooms or Commercial Hall, which is the current Founders’ Hall building. The hall was built in 1842 and was popular with military balls in the early 1850s. A few years later, it underwent another major change to become a non-conformist place of worship.

A door linked the hall to the adjacent pub and the basement was even leased out to the pub to store beer and wine at the same time as the hall was being used as a church. “The two buildings were pretty much built at the same time and within the listing, it refers to the hall as being joined to the pub,” says Goode. “When we were doing works on the basement, we actually found where that door opening was.”

The Welsh Congregational Church bought the building in 1880 and used it until a few year ago, adapting it along the way. By the time it was put up for sale, it had fallen out of use and was in a neglected state.

Richard Townend, Headmaster of Hill House International Junior School, had been on the look-out for extra space and could see the first privately owned site in London -and asked Le Lay Architects to convert it within a short time frame so that classes could start there as soon as possible. It was formally opened in February this year.

The project included renovations to the roof, removed the pews, creating classrooms, more toilets and a sports hall, putting in new heating, wiring and plumbing, and replacing the heavy colours of the church with lighter paint that would complement the architecture.

“It was very much about carefully intertwining those things that are architecturally and historically special with the needs of a new building,” says Goode. “There’s a satisfaction in being able to bring a building back into use, and at the same time to bring so much of its inherent architectural character out.”

In the hall today, designed to be a ‘rugged space’ for a school as well as a beautiful, historical building, there are still hints of its former life – the church organ remains in the hall, and the Welsh daffodil motifs are still in the windows. There is another link to the past that will soon be installed – chandeliers from Italy, inspired by prints of the dance hall. “We thought the best lighting would be to go back to this original chandelier lighting,” Goode explains. “That’s sort of our last gift as designers to the building.”