It has to be a sign of the times – Lucie Clayton’s ladies etiquette school has been transformed into bachelor pads and dinky flats (dual income, no kids yet). Fine young ladies (Joanna Lumley was one of them) learnt the arts of flower-arranging, make-up, and catwalk modelling within the walls of 4 Cornwall Gardens in South Kensington, now six decadent furnished apartments. Debutantes were groomed for society in the gracious, sash-windowed rooms, attending lessons in deportment, dinner-party planning and invitation etiquette. These days, courses in multi-room audiovisual systems and remote-controlled Lutron lighting would need to be added to the curriculum – no expense has been spared in the renovation of the property. And since the apartments cost up to £2,000 a week to rent out, the residents will no longer aspire to marry a banker but will probably already be one.
Lucie Clayton has been leaning more towards management than manners for a while. In the 1970s the school began to offer typing courses, although even those training to be secretaries had to learn some deportment (equivalent to half a term). Eventually Microsoft Office became more important to learn than modelling, and in 2003 Lucie Clayton School amalgamated with two secretarial colleges to form Quest Business Training, and moved to nearby Wetherby Gardens.
“The school has changed with society,” says Judith Kark, head of development at Quest, whose husband’s family owned and ran Lucie Clayton. Make-up is the only original Lucie Clayton subject to be taught today, forming part of the “interview technique” syllabus.
Lucie Clayton House – or 4 Cornwall Gardens – has also moved on but in many respects it has moved back. “It looks as it always should have done,” says Kark, admiring the property for the first time since Lucie Clayton closed its doors.
“It was always fighting to be an elegant set of rooms but at the time it had to be practical.” The ballroom, with three long sash windows, where Lucie Clayton girls once learned to work the catwalk and manoeuvre themselves out of a car with grace, is now the drawing room of a one-bedroom flat. “It was where traditional Lucie Clayton grooming used to take place,” says Kark.
The kitchen, through a wide archway, is composed of simple block units and stone surfaces with pop-up sockets, in keeping with the minimalist design chosen by new owner Mickey Arora. “I’ve gone for classic, modern design because it’s timeless. The tap is the only thing that sticks out – I just couldn’t help that,” he says.
Meanwhile, at vast expense, he has restored the detailed cornicing, fireplace and arched doors. This attention to architectural details has been applied to the original cornicing, balustrades and front door to each apartment, and on the central staircase. The turning handrail winds up seven storeys and the banisters have been painted silver (there is also a funky aquamarine and chrome lift).
“Although it looks very minimalist, the traditional features are all still there, telling you how the house was built and how it was meant to be,” says Kark. Maintaining the building’s natural sense of space and proportion has been Arora’s main priority. “We haven’t thought about finance all the time like developers; we’ve thought about what looks smart and stylish,” he says.
Interior designer Debbie Hatchwell used a warm paint palette, to contrast with the huge windows and neutral coloured furniture. The 6ft beds get swallowed up in vast bedrooms, with high ceilings – formerly typing or make-up classrooms.
“The girls had to walk into a big room when practising interview techniques to make it seem more daunting,” says Kark.
There is one apartment on each floor, and they are all slightly different. A raised kitchen with brushed aluminium units on the second floor gives maximum space to the sitting room, while in the top-floor flat a staircase from the entrance hall leads to a summer kitchen and decked roof terrace, with 360-degree views across the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park and the Epsom Downs. The second-floor apartment also has a large terrace: “The girls weren’t usually allowed out there,” says Kark. “It was used for fire practices.”
The bathrooms have large, deep baths, triple-sized showers and LCD widescreen televisions. There are mirrors backed with silver leaf and bespoke sofas and carpets. The heated floors are made from double-layer acoustic boards and the electrical cables are hidden out of sight. This must be a good thing, as presumably there are quite a lot of wires accompanying the electric curtains, CCTV and audio-visual system with music server and iPod screens in each room. “I designed the audio-visual system myself – often they are too complicated and not suitable for apartments,” says Arora.
Lucie Clayton House has taught Arora some important lessons about development. “I had difficulty finding good-quality workers – I had to have some jobs done three times. A lot of developers think it is good enough to use minimum specifications and charge maximum prices, so long as they install a gym,” he says.
“For me, it is a hobby – I love spending money on white elephants. I was very pedantic about restoring old features and hiding the electrics.” The conversion has taken exactly three years – 18 months behind schedule but potential tenants are already circling, so Arora hopes it will prove a viable commercial investment.
On each landing are pictures of Lucie Clayton pupils arranging flowers, or learning how to type, a poignant reminder of the building’s past.
“As practical rather than social skills became more important, we moved with the times,” says Kark. Lucie Clayton House has also moved on: it is a debutante of a new school of residential investment, with rental apartments as poised and elegant as Lucie Clayton’s top pupil. Arora is planning to use his newfound knowledge “on a bigger and better scale” somewhere else. Meanwhile, Lucie Clayton House can certainly teach other developers some manners, etiquette and presentation.