Fury as two £1m homes earmarked to become new museum celebrating one of the UK’s greatest architects… are instead being put up for sale as a ‘development opportunity’ by the local council
- EXCLUSIVE: It is not known how much the council wants but the homes are valued at £1.8 million
- The museum project was expected to cost around £3 million and last for five years
A bitter row has erupted in Tunbridge Wells after two £1million historic homes, earmarked as a new national museum celebrating one of Britain’s greatest architects, were suddenly put up for sale by the local council.
Fans of architect Decimus Burton, who designed some of London’s most famous buildings including Wellington Arch and parts of Kew Gardens, have developed a widely adopted scheme for the museum in the upscale commuter belt city.
The museum was to be housed in two vacant Regency-style villas designed by Burton – 9 and 10 Crescent Road and an adjacent car park – with the ambition of it becoming a major tourist attraction in Royal Tunbridge Wells.
But it emerged this week that Tunbridge Wells District Council (TWBC) had listed them all for sale as a “development opportunity” two weeks ago – sparking outrage from the scheme’s supporters.
Paul Avis, an architectural consultant and chairman of both the Decimus Burton Society and the Royal Tunbridge Wells Civic Society, urged the council to halt the sale and meet to find a “mutually acceptable way forward”.
He added: “We believe it would be an unforgivable shame to let these assets go to waste.”
Once the buildings are gone, there will be no opportunity to do something similar. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.
It is not known exactly how much the council is seeking for the entire site, but in 2022 its value was estimated at £1.8 million. But local estate agents say this is too conservative, and agents have said the homes will sell for at least £1m each, and possibly more, even if they are semi-derelict.
The sale is scheduled to go through a sealed bidding process.
The museum project was envisaged to cost around £3 million and last five years, with most of the funding hoped to come from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Councilor Margareta Morton, of TWBC, said the scheme would be a perfect fit for the city and it would be a “terrible shame” if the opportunity to create the museum was missed. She urged the council to take a proper look at the scheme before making any decisions when it is put up for discussion at the Cabinet meeting on December 7.
“We have an opportunity to create something that will last in his memory, especially since he lived here as well,” she added.
“He is a national and international figure and having a beautiful museum in his memory will be a great asset to Tunbridge Wells.”
Paul Rabbitts, historian and author of Decimus Burton – The Respected Architect, said: “I think what the community is doing is fantastic, and the long-term benefits to Tunbridge Wells and Burton’s legacy are huge and very important.” It would be a shame to miss the opportunity.
The scheme has received support from a range of architectural experts, Members of Parliament and peers as well as local school principals.
When the action plan was published, Katie Harris, headteacher of Broadwater Down Primary School in Tunbridge Wells, said the school’s children would “benefit hugely” from the museum.
Adding that “having a resource where kids can be really excited and immersed will benefit them greatly.”
Decimus Burton was very famous in his time and examples of his works can be seen all over the country. He designed the Wellington Arch, which played a central role in Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral procession in London and was viewed by 4 billion people around the world.
He also designed Palm House and Temperance House at Kew Gardens, several London Zoo terraces and villas in Regent’s Park.
This includes The Holme mansion, which was said to be on the market for an estimated £250 million earlier this year, making it the most expensive house for sale in Britain. He became the government’s chief architect, working on offices and buildings and was patronized by Queen Victoria, who visited many of his projects while he was working on them.
At least 70 of his works still exist at Royal Tunbridge Wells.
But, although evidence of his work can often be seen, Burton is no longer as celebrated as his peers such as Augustus Pugin and Sir John Soane. Burton, who was the tenth son of fellow architect James Burton, never married and after his death much of his archive was scattered among family members and lost.
Mr Avis added: “So, unlike the likes of Pugin, where you have very good documentation, while there is a lot of material about Burton out there, there is no single place that can serve as a focal point.”
The associations have been invited by TWBC to draw up plans for the buildings in early 2022. They intend to
The museum includes Regency period interiors, a shop and a café while the car park will be converted into a sensory garden. Being a short walk from the local mainline train station, planners conservatively estimate the scheme will inject £750,000 into the local economy but expect the real total to be higher. Both properties are in somewhat poor condition, but retain a range of original features.
“We have taken a very conservative figure of 20,000 visitors a year, taking into account the impacts of Covid. It would generate at least £750,000 for the local economy from day visitors, and if people stayed overnight, I think that would amount to approximately 1.35 million pound.
The buildings were part of the influential New Town of Calverley, the development of which was completed by 1828.
Mr Avis added: “It set a precedent for many future new town designs because it built up a community so large. It had shops, housing for all the different trades, a town hall, a market, a school opened by the then Princess Victoria, and a whole host of facilities.”
The plans were presented to a council subcommittee earlier this year, but it emerged they had not been discussed by all councillors.
DBS only learned that the properties were for sale through the local press.
Mr Avis added: “What we hope is that the council will withdraw the list and give the full councilors the ability to consider the proposals and perhaps for us to make an offer to all of them.”
“Our proposal has been submitted with the understanding that it will probably be considered as one of a number of proposals and a decision will be made on the basis of not just monetary value but what is in the best interests of the city and the community.”
“Obviously our concern is that if you’re listing a building in the current economic climate where sales are at rock bottom, you might get an undersold in the short term and put some money in the tanks, but when you actually look at what ongoing and sustainable benefits it offers “The museum is for the community (it’s so much greater).”
The council has been contacted for comment.
(tags for translation) Fury