What’s louder: The sound of an $8 million, four-story town house clattering into the abyss? Or that of the thousand gleeful “I told you so!”s that follow? It doesn’t really matter—two weeks ago in Chelsea they had the full cacophony: rubble and rumors before breakfast.
When the vacant property at 2 and 3 Durham Place, on SW3’s oofy Burton Court, collapsed late on a Monday evening earlier this month, some neighbors thought they’d heard a thunderclap. Others suspected a bomb. One chap told me he imagined a tank had collided into his mansion block. Around 40 nearby residents were evacuated onto the street, bewildered in nightshirts and Uggs. (Fortunately, no one was hurt.) Fire crews worked to secure the adjoining properties as a drone hovered in the half-light to survey the wreckage. When Prime Minister Boris Johnson invoked the spirit of the Blitz in the face of England’s national coronavirus lockdown, he could scarcely have had this in mind.
The next afternoon, a schoolboy in hat and mittens dragged his au pair up to the police cordon. “Have you seen the disappearing house?” he asked her with a flourish. Two older ladies were taking shaky photographs on their iPhones. A cyclist in high-viz Lycra put in a cheerful FaceTime call to a friend. Spectators came for the wreckage—but they stayed for the pleasing visual metaphor. Residents of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea have long suspected that wealthy property owners were going too far—or, more specifically, too deep; that the trend for cavernous iceberg homes (where the above-ground structure is just the tip of the gargantuan complex below) would end in tears. And now, apparently, it had.
Nicholas Coleridge, the chairman of the Victoria & Albert Museum, who lives nearby, summed up the general mood in an Instagram post the following day: “Are these ghastly underground mega-basements with their hardly used media rooms and panic rooms and Pilates studios and tiny windowless bedrooms for Filipino maids, really necessary?”
It’s a conundrum any oligarch worth his salt will have faced. You want to live in a stately, old-money enclave of inner London. You like the stucco-fronted terraces, the pubs, the poshos, the postcode, and the prep schools. But you also want the toys you rightly deserve—a cinema, a Turkish bath, a wine cellar, a cigar room, a casino. You can’t build sideways (too many pesky neighbors). You can’t build up (too many unbribable council planners). So you have to build down. And down and down and down. It’s also remarkably tax efficient, though I’m sure that has nothing to do with it.
“Are these ghastly underground mega-basements with their … panic rooms and Pilates studios and tiny windowless bedrooms for Filipino maids, really necessary?”
A 2018 study by Newcastle University found that 4,650 properties had been granted basement-planning permission across London’s wealthiest boroughs between 2008 and 2017, with a combined depth of more than 50,000 feet—nearly two Mount Everests. The largest concentration of so-called mega-basements (where the subterranean quarters are three or more stories deep) was found in Kensington and Chelsea. Two had more than one pool; another had an artificial beach. In 2014, the local council acknowledged that residents had “experienced years of misery from noise, vibration, dust and construction traffic,” and vowed not to approve any basement of more than a single story. They also put restrictions on anything that extended beyond the footprint of the house, to allay fears of weakened foundations and potential collapses.
But tensions still run deep, for want of a better phrase. Brian May, the Queen guitarist, decried the “basement-building bastards” rendering his home borough a “hellhole”; property magnate and “It dad” Charles Delevingne incurred the wrath of local residents in 2016 with the “hellish” development of a $14 million super-basement, according to the Evening Standard. (Told by the planning council that approval of the project by residents whose homes did not directly adjoin the site was unnecessary, one neighbor replied, “That’s absolute cock.”) One longtime Chelsea resident, who lives round the corner from Burton Court, told me, “These people spend months and months building naff subterranean lairs full of cinemas and party dungeons, and then only live in them for a fraction of the year.” Richard Anooshian, of the South Kensington Residents Association, told the Daily Mail, “Is this a smart thing to do? You hear stories of them collapsing and it just makes us sad.”
Over at Durham Place, it’s not clear to what extent the collapse was caused by underground meddling. One nearby resident told me that he believed several houses on the row had undergone recent excavations. “There’s a constant churn of trucks and builders bringing dirt up around here,” he said. The Daily Mail noted that “at least two inhabitants on this street of 11 properties have so far excavated the ground beneath their homes to create subterranean extensions”—while the next-door property had put in an application for a “basement excavation” just two weeks earlier. The Times noted that, at the collapsed property, construction had been underway to add an extension to the lower ground floor and an outdoor terrace. Land Registry documents show the house was being refurbished on behalf of Seabrook Properties, a British Virgin Islands–based company.
Brian May, the Queen guitarist, decried the “basement-building bastards” rendering his home borough a “hellhole.”
Even before its cinematic demise, the house enjoyed a dramatic history. The property was the home of Arthur Abeles, a Hollywood film executive, who lived there from the 1950s until his death, in 2000. His daughter Angela Ashcroft, who is a part owner of the house, was at home in Dorset when a neighbor rang. “I just couldn’t believe it,” she told The Times. “All those wonderful memories and that beautiful house turned to rubble.” (Ashcroft has said that rumors that the house was undergoing a basement excavation are inaccurate.)
“I do remember that it was ‘open house’ for any of our parents’ friends to drop in,” said Ashcroft, whose father founded United International Pictures and was the head of Warner Bros. in Europe. She recalled how Sean Connery, Dirk Bogarde, and Noël Coward would stop by for Dad’s “famously strong martinis.” An early private screening of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. was held in the living room. (“Dad always joked that our postcode was SW3 4ET because it was named after the film,” she said.) She remembered, once upon a time, the street filling up with “amazing American cars” owned by her father’s Hollywood contacts, and Ronald Reagan, in his days as an actor, appearing on the driveway before a weekend jaunt to Monaco.
“The family is already planning the next chapter,” said Ashcroft, “which is this wonderful house’s complete reconstruction so that it can be a much-loved family home once again.” For now, Durham Place recalls the set of a particularly ornate disaster movie. The plutocrats nearby must hope there’s not a sequel in the works.
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL