Monday, October 17, 2011

HIGH ELMS MANOR | Country House Rescue

High Elms Manor in Garston, near Watford, Herts., UK
I have visited High Elms Manor several times over the last 13 years of its ownership by my sister Sheila O'Neill. A well-informed blogger said of Sheila's determined rescue effort:
If there was a prize for commitment above and beyond financial sense then the owner of High Elms Manor/Garston Manor could probably win "Highly Commended" for her determination to rescue this once-derelict country house. Matthew Becket, The Country Seat, April 10, 2011.
The Risk. When my sister talked to me about purchasing the property, I was of two minds about it. Others in the family were not of two minds – they were opposed, because of the commitment required and the risk involved.

On the one hand the property is a jewel with an impressive history. It is a Grade II listed Georgian home. Built in 1812 or earlier, the Manor was once on a 500-acre estate – of which 21 acres remain. It was called High Elms Manor until 1895, when the name was changed to Garston Manor; Sheila has chosen to use the older name. In 1870 or so, the Manor was bought by the Watney family, who sold it to fellow brewers Benskins. In 1911 it was purchasd by Walter Bourne, a department store co-founder, who died in 1921. His son Stafford inherited it and sold it for use as a medical rehabilitation center. During World War II it was reportedly used for U.S.-British air force consultatation and liaison. After the war it became a National Health Service property for treatment of elderly patients, until the 1990s. This is a distinguished history that earns it a place as a Grade II listed property.

On the other hand, the current cost to heat and maintain the building is £75,000 per year. The cost of repairs that are needed to bring the property up to a minimal standard add another £500,000 to the original price she paid for the property, doubling it to £1 million.
Ceilings had fallen in, all the floors had been damaged, the wood panelling had turned green, chimneys had collapsed, lead had been stripped off the roof by vandals, there were a hundred broken windows, the garden was a jungle. It was in a terrible state. – Sheila O'Neill.
Outcome. Sheila went about the renovation one task at a time, starting with putting on a new roof to stop the widespread leaking. Progress was slow but steady over the past 13 years. Sheila has done an amazing job of renovation. In 2010, she and her daughters applied to Ruth Watson of "Country House Rescue," a widely viewed television program (UK Channel 4), to see how they might put the Manor on a more sustainable footing. Here's what Channel 4 said:
Headmistress Sheila O'Neill bought the house as a wreck for £500,000 from the local council with dreams of turning the decrepit building into a school. Thirteen years later and the Montessori school is just about breaking even. But attempts at diversifying into a wedding and conference venue have failed. Sheila and her children, four daughters in their 30s and 40s, all live in self-contained flats on the upper floors of the house... Ruth needs to persuade Sheila to relinquish control and pass some responsibility onto her eccentric and free spirited daughters. Ruth gives three of the daughters individual responsibilities. - Roisin clears the woodland that accompanies the house and create a magical treasure hunt for guests. - Catrine builds on her interest in the supernatural to launch a UFO academy. - Liadain takes over responsibility of the overall look of the house, from the internal decorations to the disheveled terrace and gardens. "Country House Rescue," April 10, 2011.
Based on professional advice that came with the show, the Manor gets a new terrace, floors are fixed, the kitchen is upgraded and paintings are moved around. (Details on the many renovations are in Hertfordshire Life.) The newly sponsored treasure hunt and the UFO academy are great successes. Having been on "Country House Rescue" was itself a huge plus. Stay tuned!