Few thought Hawthorn House, a former library and council office, would ever be returned to its glory days as family home. But that is exactly what its new owners have planned for the historic mansion. Neil Elkes reports.
"We thoroughly believe we have got a bargain. It was designed to be a family home and it will be again.”
Harkamal Singh Sandhu is full of pride as he surveys the Georgian mansion which he plans to share with his parents and wife.
But before they can even begin to start rattling around the 50-odd rooms of Hawthorn House there is a major restoration programme to undertake, one which could cost at least as much as the £775,000 they paid for the Grade II listed building in July.
They estimate it will take at least two years to get the house ready for occupation.
Already Jaswant Singh Sandhu, owner of Gurmat Travel agency in Handsworth, his wife Surinder Kaur, his son Harkamal and daughter-in-law Kiranjit Kaur, both qualified accountants, have worked out a plan – a vast family kitchen and family quarters to one side of the grand hallway, with guest rooms to the other side.
In its current condition it bears all the signs of a home drastically altered from family to office use over the years.
Since the Second World War it has been owned by the local authority, used first as a children’s home and nursery and more recently as the community library and offices. The library and welcome sign and checking out hatch are still in place.
A telephone exchange and computer server cabinet remain on the top floor.
The IT cabling bolted to floors and walls, security locks, room numbers, partition walls, suspended ceilings, strip lights, notice boards and a still working CCTV system all show that this is not a home, but a place of work.
But among the modern additions there are signs of the home’s proud history; ornate coving, delicate plaster work friezes, a stained glass window, archways and the sweeping main staircase – which, once cleaned up, will give the home a real wow factor.
The aim is to return it to its condition around the 1950s, complete with a white coat of paint on the outside wall.
With no need for a warren of offices, each with toilets and kitchens, they envisage tearing down partitions, pulling out suspended ceilings, uncovering archways and those hidden details.
The plans, now approved by the city council, brought a collective sigh of relief from various Birmingham’s history societies and conservation groups who feared that the grand house would be converted into apartments and houses built in the grounds.
The Sandhus had to fight off a rival bid that they suspect involved a developer and believe that had the housing market been booming, those developers would have taken the sale price to over £1 million.
Harkamal said: “We have lived in Handsworth Wood for 23 years, we love this area. I used to play cricket in the garden as a boy. To buy this house and to be able to stop developers turning it into flats, this is a dream come true.
“So many people have congratulated us and are pleased we want to return it to a family residence.
"We didn’t want the developers ruining it. Any flats or apartments would have been the end of Hawthorn House.”
He admits it could take time to restore. “We are talking to builders, the conservation officers and architect. It may take two years. We are not in a rush. We can get the family rooms ready for living and take more time over the guest areas.
“We want to make it as beautiful as we can in two years.”
Hawthorn House was designed to be an impressive family home. Built around the turn of the 19th century and like Soho House nearby and many large mansions in Birmingham it was a direct result of the city’s growing wealth at the height of the industrial revolution.
During the Victorian era is was owned by the Bullocks, a family of West Bromwich iron foundry owners. It was widely extended during this period. After the war the needs for such large family properties dwindled and the local authority took it over.
The family were involved in the local campaign to keep the library open, or keep the building for the community, which has been running for almost two years.
Jaswant sought the support of local Sikh temples for a religious and community shared use, but after that provoked a furious debate the council slapped a covenant on the sale preventing its use as a place of worship.
At the same time the council also rejected a community asset transfer bid. So the Sandhus held a family meeting, decided they could not let it go to developers and, as they say, the rest is history.