Richard has brought life back to the grand old dame of Derby's architecture – St Helen's House
St Helen's House, one of Derby's much-loved historic buildings, will soon be buzzing with activity once again after years of standing empty. Lynne Dixon meets restoration expert Richard Blunt, the man who has breathed new life into the property.
IMAGINE an elegant 18th-century Palladian mansion set in a beautiful 50-acre park on the edge of Derby, where the great and the good gathered to socialise, where chandeliers sparkled, hearths blazed, conversation and wine flowed and glittering celebrities of the day like Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, partied.
Other glamorous and influential guests – the movers and shakers of the 1770s and 80s in fact – would almost certainly have included Derby's renowned painter Joseph Wright.
So where was this magnificent Georgian townhouse? Did it disappear long ago like so many other historic buildings? Or does it still exist?
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The good news is that it does. You might well have walked or driven past it a thousand times. The building in question is St Helen's House, in King Street, Derby, which started life as a private house or "gentleman's residence" in 1766 and was for many years home to the Strutt family of industrialists.
In the mid-19th century the house ceased to be a private family home and was turned into Derby School, a grammar school for boys. In 1966 the school moved out and St Helen's House became a centre for adult education.
After that, its use came to an end, the house stood forlorn and empty for five years due to the mounting cost of essential repairs.
Its fortunes changed dramatically in 2007 when property restoration expert Richard Blunt acquired it from Derby City Council on a 299-year lease. He set about rescuing this beautiful building, a sadly neglected jewel in Derby's crown. Now, his major restoration is pretty well complete.
Widely considered one of the finest surviving Georgian townhouses outside London, St Helen's House – designed by local architect Joseph Pickford in 1766 – is structurally sound and weatherproof once again and the elegance and beauty of this grade one-listed building have been brought back to life.
In April, Smith Cooper, accountants and business advisers, moved in to make it their company headquarters.
Richard says: "In the beginning, St Helen's House stood in 50 acres of glorious parkland. It was an oasis of tranquility, totally removed from the hurly burly of the centre of Derby."
But, inevitably, Derby began to expand due to the industrial revolution and today this splendid house stands only a heartbeat away from Derby's fast-moving inner ring road.
Richard says: "Fewer than 5% of listed buildings in this country are grade one and restoring one is quite a scary thing. But this project has been very fulfilling and made me proud. The bigger the worry, the more satisfying it is when you turn it round. Then finding someone to occupy the building you have lavished so much love and care on is the big win."
Richard grew up at Castle Farm, in Melbourne, the son of John Blunt, who now owns and lives in Staunton Harold Hall. Educated at Ashby Grammar School, Richard took A-levels at Wilmorton College in Derby and went on to study economics and history at University College, London.
He has been restoring listed buildings – Georgian houses being his speciality – in the East Midlands for the past 25 years. A respected expert in the field, Richard has twice won the Best Restoration of a Georgian Building in the UK Award.
What's more, he was recently described as one of Britain's "trustiest restorers of listed buildings" by the Georgian Group, which advises the Government on listed Georgian buildings.
Richard is married to Lynne, a Melbourne girl, and they have four children – William, 12, James, 10, Amelia, seven, and four-year-old Henry. Home is a Georgian country house, Clifton Hall, which Richard has restored, close to the Derbyshire-Staffordshire border.
But back to his latest project, St Helen's House, which he has been carrying out in close co-operation with Derby City Council.
The project is in three phases. Phase one has been the sensitive restoration of the house, while phase two will involve restoring the adjoining Pearson Building, put up in the 19th century as an extension to Derby School. When complete, the plan is that this second building will be used as upmarket offices.
Then comes phase three, which Richard is very excited about. He has planning permission to build an adjacent Georgian-style crescent of 49 luxury apartments and townhouses with secure underground parking.
"It will be a curved building called King's Crescent. There hasn't been a crescent built in Derby for over 100 years."
Prices for the properties are set to start at around £119,000 and go up to £300,000.
"I think it will be the perfect place to be; just a five-minute walk into the town centre, yet close to tranquil Darley Park. These won't be 'boxes'; they will be pleasing, interesting spaces for people to enjoy living in."
As Richard takes me round the newly renovated St Helen's House, a three-storey brick mansion with a classical stone frontage, he explains that he and a team of 40 to 50 craftsmen have been painstakingly restoring the outside and inside of the building for the past two years, using authentic materials like lime mortar and horsehair plaster.
Original Georgian windows have been repaired or, if necessary, replaced with perfect replicas.
The seven large, well-proportioned rooms on the ground floor will be used as meeting rooms by the new tenants.
First we go into the main drawing room, where he points out the magnificently carved plaster ceiling. This has been perfectly restored by pinning the ornate detail together with hidden titanium rods.
Richard chose appropriate period colours for the downstairs rooms – sky blue walls in this room and heritage green for the breakfast room.
Richard says that, in conjunction with the new occupants, he hopes to arrange some future public access to the house, possibly tours for history groups.
He points out the restored grand central staircase, with its ornate wrought-iron balustrade, newly repainted in gunmetal and gold, thought to have been made by Benjamin Yates, successor to the great Derbyshire ironsmith Robert Bakewell. On the first floor, Richard shows me the seven light, airy rooms which once served as bedrooms, dressing rooms and living space.
These rooms will soon be buzzing with activity as staff beaver away in Derby's newest and probably most elegant and prestigious offices.
Richard is known to have an interest in restoring Elvaston Castle, which is owned by Derbyshire County Council.
"It needs a new lease of life," he says.
"When I'm an old man, I'd like to drive past all the historic houses I've restored and see them with the lights on, full of people enjoying themselves. Old buildings need to be alive to be appreciated, not be like a museum."