Restoring a once proud beauty. Six years of rehab brings an 18th-century English home to new life

Six years ago, a once-proud house on the fringes of the Ashdown Forest in Sussex lay dying, its structure almost entirely destroyed, deserted by the crowds of socialites who had flocked to the many glittering occasions it had hosted. This once-great beauty was called Hammerwood Park.

But its story didn't have to end tragically. Or so thought David Pinnegar when, in August 1982, he stumbled into what could have been the house's last days. He resolved right then to restore the neglected home to its former elegance.

What impelled a 21-year-old physics graduate, fresh out of London's Imperial College, to even consider taking on the monumental task of restoring life to a crumbling heap of secondhand building materials?

``I realized that if I did not buy Hammerwood, there was little hope for its future,'' he says. ``I have always wanted to restore a country house, and Hammerwood came at just the right moment.'' He saw it as a fine house for the public to use and enjoy. Other prospective buyers saw it only as a building site.

For six years Mr. Pinnegar has been waging, almost single-handedly, a battle to rescue an important monument to America's first professional architect, Benjamin Latrobe.

Latrobe is well known for his many famous buildings in the United States - the exterior of the White House, the Capitol and Decatur House in Washington, and Baltimore Cathedral and the Baltimore Exchange, as well as the Bank of Philadelphia. It was in Philadelphia that he achieved one of his most notable engineering feats, the first city water supply system.

The British, however, are little aware of the English-born Latrobe and still less of Hammerwood Park, his most important English building. Discovering this gave Pinnegar's urge to restore ``a country house'' an added incentive. Hammerwood is no ordinary country house; it is an important piece of American culture.

When Pinnegar first set eyes on Hammerwood, the somber late-18th-century country house was in an advanced state of dereliction. Concerned real estate agents warned of the dangers of even setting foot inside the building. Its boarded windows stared blindly over the ruins of a neglected pleasure garden. Its roof, stripped of its lead, gaped open, leaving inside rooms helpless against the relentless elements. Both dry and wet rot abounded, and not a single room was habitable.

Hammerwood's new owner was certain that he had come onto the scene not a moment too soon. One more winter would have been too much for this fragile monument.

Upon close examination, Pinnegar discovered that Hammerwood is a signed work. Houses, unlike most works of art, are seldom signed by their creators.

But tucked away behind capitals of the Coade stone Doric columns that support the west portico is a Greek inscription which, when translated, reads: ``Of John Sperling's mansion, the architect B.H. Latrobe made the first portico in A.D. 1792 and the second year of the 642nd Olympiad.''

Benjamin Henry Latrobe was only 26 years old when he was given the commission by the wealthy John Sperling to build for him a country house close to the small town of East Grinstead. Born in Britain of French parents, Latrobe spent his childhood in England and was educated in Germany.

He returned to England in 1784, where he continued his studies in both architecture, under S.P. Cockerell, and engineering, under Smeaton, the builder of the famous Eddystone Lighthouse in the English Channel. In 1795, Latrobe emigrated to America and eight years later became architectural adviser to President Jefferson.

Hammerwood is an early example of the Greek Revival style of architecture. The Doric columns supporting the porticos on its east and west wings are the only ones in England to copy the 6th-century BC originals of the ancient Greek cities Paestum and Delos. Inside the porticos are two Coade stone plaques copied from the Borghese Vase, now in the Louvre, the only known examples of the type.

With what resources he had left after the purchase, Pinnegar tackled the most urgent repairs on the roof. So much of the roof of the east wing was missing that it had instantly to be covered in tarpaulin to weatherproof the building.

Only six months after his purchase, the house was opened to the public. The first incredulous visitors were so appalled by what they saw that many of them have returned regularly to see the progress.

In five years, a surprising amount has been accomplished. No longer can the sky be viewed overhead from the hall. Arched vistas along graceful corridors and spacious rooms have been opened up after years of division of the house into 11 flats.

It is true that the dining room still affords an uninterrupted view of the bedroom above through the little that is left of the ceiling, but this serves well to illustrate the scale of the restoration work.

``It must have cost a fortune!'' Or so one would think. But it hasn't. Although English Heritage, a government-funded body, and other sources have assisted in the financing of the restoration, it has been necessary to keep to the kind of budget that many other restorers would consider impossibly tight.

Working with a few equally enthusiastic craftsmen, Pinnegar has steered a course quite apart from the obvious. One well-known firm of plasterers was rejected before its representative even reached the front door. ``His car was much too expensive. I wasn't going to pay for that.''

Instead Pinnegar learned to make plaster molds himself, using the surviving motifs as models, and completed the work at a fraction of the estimate.

As if rampant decay and limited funds were not enough of a challenge, David Pinnegar has had another, equally difficult battle to wage in the courts - one against his neighbors.

One essential that the architect of Hammerwood did not, and probably could not provide, was adequate access. The mile or so of winding country lane is charming, but is also wholly inadequate to carry the thousands of visitors a year who are eager to see the house. Neighboring property owners have succeeded in persuading the courts to severely limit the times when the house can be open to the public, thus cutting off much of the income vital to complete and maintain Hammerwood. Permission has been granted to form a new access, but at great cost.

A year ago, the Latrobe Heritage Trust was formed to help raise the funds to secure Hammerwood's lifeline, to maintain it, and to promote the study of America's famous architect.

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