Words Kirk Truman
Illustrations Sarah Maycock
Fitzroy Place is, according to its developers Exemplar and Aviva, ‘the most significant new development in Fitzrovia for 50 years.’ I took a tour of the site with the aim of getting under the skin of a project that has both fascinated and, at times, divided the Fitzrovia community. Ultimately, I was surprised at the delight I experienced with what I found.
Yes, Fitzroy Place has had its detractors, and yes many people still miss the Middlesex Hospital, on whose site it now sits. But there is another side to the story which sees Fitzroy Place as an important new addition to Fitzrovia that is also sympathetic and respectful to the past. Originally opened as an 18 bed infirmary on Windmill Street, the Middlesex Infirmary was the first hospital in England to add ‘lying-in’ maternity beds to its wards. In 1757 it moved to Mortimer Street where it became the Middlesex Hospital. Various extensions were added to the original, though in 1924 the decision was made that the building had become structurally unsound and it was proposed for a new one to be built to replace it. The work was completed in stages, meaning that the hospital didn’t have to be closed and the new Middlesex Hospital was completed in 1935
At its peak there were many nurses, nuns and hospital staff living in Fitzrovia, due to its locality to the hospital. But, after almost 250 years of being based on Mortimer Street, it closed in December 2005, with the main building and three acre site earmarked for sale to developers. Although, , when the main structure was demolished in spring 2008, the unconsecrated 1890 Chapel (Designed by John Loughborough Pearson) was preserved, along with the historic facade on Nassau Street and corner building on Mortimer Street.
After luxury property developers, Candy and Candy, failed to redevelop the site under the largely opposed title of ‘NoHo Square’, the site was bought by fund manager Aviva and developer Exemplar in late 2010. The original ‘NoHo Square’ development was rejected and in 2012 a new development, designed by London-based architects Lifschutz Davison Sandilands and Sheppard Robson was granted planning consent. Now Fitzroy Place is an emerging development, with 235 prestigious apartments, alongside high quality office and retail space, with a new square and public space at its heart.
Cue ‘O Fortuna’. With its crisp white stone façade, contrasted with strips of red brick, echoing the former Middlesex Hospital on Nassau Street, Fitzroy Place complements the heritage façade to the west. On Mortimer Street, 1 & 2 Fitzroy Place will act as office space spread over eight floors – both office buildings due for completion in the third quarter of this year. In mid-May, Exemplar and Aviva promised to add another dash of colour to the area by agreeing to lease the whole of 1 Fitzroy Place to, fashion and cosmetics giant, Estee Lauder.
In my journey around the new development, I pass the ground floor site of a new restaurant, to be occupied by the creator of some of the best new eateries in Belgravia and Pimlico Cubitt House. Hammers clang, workers move to and fro between buildings, trucks wade out through the gates onto the street. This is the centre of Fitzroy Place, and it is hard to believe that within a year it will become the biggest new square created in W1 for 100 years. The name for the square is courtesy of architect John Loughborough Pearson whose listed Chapel is currently in the final stages of an exhaustive 2 million pounds restoration, truly it resonates.
The chapel glows both internally and externally as it nears completion, with its polished gold ceilings reverberating light throughout and its crisp red brickwork repainted – she looks fresh, new faced and fully restored to her heyday. The chapel is to be donated for community use. A new pathway has been created through the site, allowing people to walk through in a way that wasn’t possible during the days of Middlesex Hospital. Into a hoist and so begins my climb from the ground floor, through ten more, to the apartments and penthouses above.
We reach the top floor of Fitzroy Place – this corner of the building is home to two penthouses with private balconies, huge open plan living spaces and lifts, giving occupants private access directly into their home. From the west facing penthouse on the northwest corner Parliament appears merely a stone’s throw away, just beyond Oxford Street, Centre Point and Soho. Looking down, this birds-eye view gives me a chance to envisage the finished article of Pearson Square where trees, nature and the sociability of the Fitzrovia area will fill the square and surround the timeless Chapel in all its carefully restored glory. From the opposite northeast corner penthouse, the former home of Charles Dickens is visible below on Cleveland Street, ahead in the distance, the British Museum, the City, King’s Cross and, let’s not forget, Fitzrovia’s renowned maypole – the Telecom Tower.
With their tall sash-window frames and the beautifully restored red brickwork, the Nassau Street apartments feel different to the penthouses above; they remind me of the former Georgian building on the site. These apartments are much smaller, but their ceilings are high and the living space is broad and engaging. Despite this, it feels almost impossible to think that these same empty, largely incomplete spaces that are currently littered with random metal beams and wiring will be alive and inhabitable for residential use.
Exemplar’s Richard Shaw, who has lived and breathed the project, says that “Fitzroy Place offers a rare and exciting opportunity to promote and define an important part of Central London. Fitzrovia is a thriving, established and harmonious community with an interesting heritage, and the development plans reflect this. We want to ensure we deliver a high quality, sustainable scheme that enhances and adds value to this well connected and desirable part of London.”
Some people in Fitzrovia embody the very British habit of opposing all development, or to put it more generally, anything new: I must confess myself as among these voices until I had explored the new development. Now I listen to words of sheer presumption, rumour and very little of the now. The memory of Middlesex Hospital and the conjecture surrounding a grade II listed chapel add to this thickened plot. A place that brought life and spirit to so many in this area has long disappeared; what resonates now is life. This is the now. I emplore you to denounce rumour, denounce tale, there is due the arrival of something which I daringly pronounce quite special in Fitzrovia.
There is no denying it. If you live in Fitzrovia and if you know these streets well then chances are that you know somebody who understands the tensions caused by this development, which primarily relate to the site’s former occupant. I am, like many in our community, famously averse to change. Now though, I confess myself admirable of a space that I have seen empty for so long slowly being readied for Fitzrovia to admire for years to come. I say to you, modernity in Fitzrovia. I say to you, Fitzroy Place.