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Smart, Chic and Central - Mayfair
Smart, Chic and Central - Mayfair

Published FT Dec 1 2007

Walk down any London high street and you won’t usually see Prince Charles and Prince Philip staring out at you from a shop window. But, passing the picture framer on Mount Street, there they are – two large, black-and-white portraits of the royals. This is Mayfair, after all, and it is far from your average neighbourhood.

The presence of a Marc Jacobs designer clothing boutique and the chic Scott’s eatery nearby is further evidence of the area’s upmarket status. Other high-end retail names such as Balenciaga by Gucci and Christian Louboutin are both soon to arrive. And the £60m ($124m) refit of the Connaught Hotel is underway.

Mayfair, once a staid location dominated by offices and embassies, is becoming fashionable again, not only with tourists and shoppers but also with homeowners in search of a quiet, exclusive, centrally located place to live.

“After the second world war a lot of property was given temporary 50-year office leases. As these have expired, developers have become interested in the area again and have been regentrifying it by creating the right product for the prime and super-prime [residential] market,” says Richard Cutt of estate agency Knight Frank. “About five years ago, people who had previously only been interested in Knightsbridge and Belgravia began to buy in Mayfair.”

The area is bounded by the bustling London thoroughfares of Piccadilly, Regent Street, Oxford Street and Park Lane. But leave these main routes and you enter an atmosphere of discreet wealth and surprising calm much valued by residents. “I’ve never been happier. It’s just the most wonderful place to live,” says portrait photographer and author Gemma Levine, who has lived in a Mayfair apartment for four years. With almost 20 books to her name, she has been so inspired by the area that her next will feature some of the characters from her neighbourhood.

“I love being able to walk every­where,” adds Anthony Lorenz, chairman of the Residents’ Society of Mayfair and Saint James. “Mayfair has kept its elegance. You can imagine the old gentleman with his silver-topped cane walking through with his lady friend.”

The Grosvenor family, today headed by the Duke or Marquess of Westminster, first began to develop the area in the 17th century, having acquired the land through the marriage of the young Cheshire baronet Sir Thomas Grosvenor and 12-year-old Mary Davies in 1677. The holding has remained almost intact for 300 years and has always been “posh”. Of the first occupants of the 277 houses in and around Grosvenor Square, 41 were peers (members of the British nobility), seven later became peers and 69 others were titled. But the varying preferences of different generations of nobles mean that Mayfair is architecturally diverse and full of quirks.

While one marquess would be influenced by Italianate designs – leading to the application of stucco to plain Georgian house fronts, along with porticoes, window detailing, balustrades and cornicing – the next would be a fan of the Queen Anne revival, with a penchant for red brick and terracotta. “The more red brick the better” was one duke’s comment on a proposal received shortly before his death in 1899.

And the piecemeal development continues. The US Navy building, to the north of Grosvenor Square, was, for example, sold to rich recluse Richard Caring for conversion into apartments in June this year and there is much speculation about whether the country’s embassy, on the west side of the square, will remain there. “No decision has yet been made but the chances of a move are about 50-50,” a spokesman says.

The departure of the diplomatic headquarters might have a significant impact on the residential character of the area, offering the potential for the creation of a new hotel or another development of apartments. If it stays, local residents will continue to have to accept the implications.

The gated compound recently increased its security, incorporating a mews street to the rear that is now patrolled by armed police, which can be off-putting. The sale of a neighbouring house fell through when the would-be purchaser pulled out after being asked at gunpoint to produce identification. But prices have not suffered. A five-bedroom family house in the same street as the embassy is for sale through estate agency Wetherell for £3.85m, while a modernised mews house with a double-height basement kitchen is for sale at £11m.

“Entry level for a one-bedroom flat in Mayfair is now about £1m,” says estate agent Peter Wetherell. “Two bedroom [homes] are priced between £1.5m and £2m [and] those with three bedrooms are £2m to £3m.”

Research from estate agency Knight Frank predicts continued growth in the premium central London property market of 10 per cent through 2008 following 30 per cent growth in the past year. A house in Mayfair that was bought for £2.2m in 2005 sold in August for £4.7m, while a flat that sold for £2.3m in late 2004 fetched £4m.

Demand outstrips supply. There have been 146 residential sales this year and only 60 units are currently on the market.

The rental market is also strong, says Alex Koch de Gooreynd of Knight Frank. “We’ve seen several tenants who’ve sold up from other areas and are renting for 18 months [in Mayfair], possibly waiting to see what the market does before buying back. At the top end rents are approaching £2 per sq ft per week.”

Developer and interior designer Paul Davies is part of an influx of professionals creating bespoke new interiors behind the historic façades in the neighbourhood to satisfy changing tastes. “I remember from my childhood that Mayfair, because of its position on the Monopoly board, was synonymous with luxury,” he says. Today it comes in a more modern guise, with sleek kitchens, designer furniture and not a hint of chintz, Wetherell adds.

Residents say they appreciate the community ties that grow out of a familiarity forged by recognising friendly faces on the street. “There’s also a fabulous collection of clubs, restaurants, hotels and bars within walking distance, as well as the lovely buildings,” says Lorenz, who has lived and worked as a commercial estate agent in the area for more than 40 years.

He has watched the market change in recent years as finance groups moved into Curzon Street, earning it the nickname “hedge fund alley”. Across St James and Mayfair they occupy 30 per cent of office space but their preference for modern, open-plan buildings is allowing former grand houses to revert to residential use. The sale of a 15,000 sq ft mansion on Upper Brook Street in June created a bidding war among developers keen to create a larger luxury home by connecting its mews lodging to the main building. Complete with new underground swimming pool, it came to market priced at £15m but eventually sold for more than £18m.

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Local agents

Wetherell, tel: 44 (0)2075295588; www.wetherell.co.uk

Knight Frank, tel: 44 (0)207647661 www.knightfrank.co.uk

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