The renovation of the Heal’s Building

Londoners are sentimental about the early-twentieth-century Tottenham Court Road store, Heal’s


This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

When Ben Cross tells people he worked on the redevelopment of the Heal’s Building, they react in one of two ways. “The first is, ‘Oh wow, that building!’” he says. “The second is: ‘So you’ve kicked Heal’s out?’”

Londoners, says the director of development at General Projects, are sentimental about the early-twentieth-century Tottenham Court Road store, with its Portland stone, stripped-classical facade, its blue-and-gold plaques featuring illustrations of furnishing delights such as four-poster beds and its tall, slim windows with delicate framing like lace.

But they also assume the building’s redevelopment means an inevitable eviction for the 200-year-old furniture retailer and atelier from its Grade II*-listed flagship showrooms — what Cross calls “probably the best building in the West End” — which it has occupied since 1916 and which still bears its founder’s name “Heal & Son” debossed in fine, gilt lettering on its fabric.

But Heal’s is staying, despite the building’s acquisition in 2021 for redevelopment by KKR, the American private equity firm, and developer General Projects. “No Heal’s is the last thing we want,” says Cross.

Perhaps Londoners’ resignation to the loss of its leading retailers is understandable: it is hard not to feel disoriented and disconnected by the speed with which many of the city’s largest and longest-established stores have closed or become diminished versions of themselves in the post-pandemic city.

The Heal’s refurbishment is unusual in the capital in its retention of its original occupier to a heritage site, one of a dwindling few that are still used for their original purpose — at least in part.

In the new configuration to what is now called The Heal’s Building, revealed in March after a two-year redevelopment, Heal’s still sells its sleek sideboards, plush sofas and king-size beds from 191-199 Tottenham Court Road. But its physical retail space has shrunk, reflecting changes in Londoners’ habits and the forces that shape them, to which many of the store’s retail counterparts in the West End are also struggling to adapt.

“The challenge from a market perspective was a belief it would only work as a stand-alone development,” says Cross. “But we picked up the phone to Heal’s and asked, would you like to be in less space? And they said yes.”

Until two years ago, the Heal’s showrooms occupied multiple floors stuffed with furniture and homeware as far as the eye could see. Now, it occupies 49,000 square feet over the ground floor and basement, having taken over the former Habitat showroom in the northern extension.

The first and second floors of The Heal’s Building, meanwhile, have been cleared of shopfitting detritus, refitted and are now empty offices waiting to be let to outside tenants — what General Projects hopes will become a 200,000 square foot “creative, media and technology business hub”. Soon, a cafe and gallery will be added. The aim is to create that thing that often eludes developers: a buzz.

“If someone wants a 10,000 square foot box with no columns and glass and steel, they’re not going to find it here,” says Cross.

What General Projects and KKR has is more than a conventional store. It bought a vast complex of nine separate buildings, and no two are the same. Behind the chic Tottenham Court Road façade and along Alfred Mews to the side, lies a jumble of former manufacturing and upholstery workshops and dispatch buildings, where Heal’s beds and upholstery were once made to order. Since the mid-1980s, they had been mostly used for storage. Heal’s furniture and mattresses are now made by manufacturers around the UK, except for leather sofas and dining chairs, which are made in Italy.

Now with architects Buckley Grey Yeoman, the former workshops have also been converted into yet more offices for rent, partly refurbished but also left deliberately imperfect and slightly battered, with the evidence of the site’s former life made visible: original bespoke bannisters in the service stairwells; vast iron doors on rollers made to shut the factory’s din and dust out of the shop floor; swan-necked light fittings.

The snail-shell Cecil Brewer staircase, perhaps London’s finest with its battered oak treads and tall bronze sculpture of a cat by Chassagne, the French sculptor, and bought in 1929, remains in use at the back of the shop. The building may look uniform from the street, but it is really a hybrid, a mash-up of skilled extensions, which trace various retail booms of the twentieth century.

On the shop floor, you can still find a framed pencil sketch of the Tottenham Court Road facade by Edward Maufe, dated 1936. Maufe was the building’s second architect.

He was hired to extend to the south by five bays the original 1916 structure by Cecil Brewer with A. Dunbar Smith who had been hired by Ambrose Heal to help turn his family’s bed manufacturing business into a leading designer and maker of expensive Arts and Crafts furnishings for a growing middle class. According to the architectural historian Alan Powers, the building set a standard for structural clarity and decorative restraint.

Missing from Maufe’s sketch is the 1962 northern extension, built to serve a new, booming market for homeware and also by five bays, by Fitzroy Robinson & Partners — less decorative, more modernist and dutifully considerate of the first and second.

The building holds more delights: Maufe’s long, slender, jagged window for Heal’s overlooking Alfred Mews, for example, echoes those at Guildford Cathedral which he designed and was working on at roughly the same time.

General Projects is capitalising on Heal’s heritage and says it wants to turn the building “from furniture maker to manufacturer of ideas”. Its restoration is respectful and has avoided the dreariness of an open-plan office layout by retaining many of the divisions, twists and turns from when it was a furniture showroom.

But when Cross showed me around a few weeks before the grand reopening, no tenants had been secured — though he says that is because it has yet to be marketed. I wonder how confident he is that an office complex will succeed, given falling demand for offices and the problems of persuading workers to return.

Working from home is losing its appeal, but workers are reluctant to give up its benefits altogether. Still, according to findings in November 2023, the West End was in the top three locations in Europe for workers returning to the office, with an average occupancy rate of 62 per cent compared with 50 per cent in February the same year. This, say the report’s authors, Savills, is partly down to a broader mix of businesses than other districts.

And a smattering of ventures such as music production companies, branding and marketing are already in part of the Heal’s building, as is an office of Liverpool Football Club.

“Tottenham Court Road is quite dull and generic: it has lost a lot of its character and it could be anywhere.” concedes Jacob Loftus, General Projects’ founder and chief executive. “But Heal’s contrasts well with the rest of the street. It’s a bit weird and wonderful, whimsical and magical. It won’t be for everyone but we think that the decisions we have made on the design, rather than pretend to be a corporate high grade … a bit bland and a bit safe … are the right ones.”

Many Londoners feel that property development moves so fast and is so voracious that much of the city is unrecognisable from even five years ago. Shops are shrinking as retail shifts online. Heal’s may be smaller, but its new configuration means it has doubled its store frontage and street level presence.

Dodie Smith, author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians, worked in Heal’s toy department

Contrast Heal’s with the fortunes of Orchard House, Marks & Spencer’s unlisted Oxford Street store, built in 1929. After a protracted planning battle it looks set to be demolished to make way for a mixed use development, including a smaller shop and offices.

Or Fenwick, the department store, which closed its four-storey New Bond Street premises in February after more than 130 years. The building was sold to developers Lazari Investments after the retailer decided to reduce its physical operation. Architects Foster + Partners will redesign the site. Like Heal’s, it will be a mix of retail and offices. Unlike Heal’s, the Fenwick building is unlisted. Foster + Partners says it will retain “approximately 75 per cent of the facades”.

Or the fortunes of Stanfords, the 171-year-old travel bookshop and the world’s largest, which left the ornate building on Long Acre in Covent Garden it had occupied since 1873 for a small, charmless glass box in Seven Dials Market in 2019. According to contemporaneous reports, a rent hike was too much to allow Stanfords to stay. Like Heal’s, its name was written into the fabric of its original building.

But for the time being, at least Heal’s is safe. “Until recently, what we have done here was the story of London,” says Ben Cross. “Reinvigorating what we already have when things change, rather than starting again.”

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