"It was,” concedes Alex Michelin, “a chunky amount of money. And back then, given the financial crisis, the world was in a different place. It was a big risk. But then the chance to acquire such a building is a once in a lifetime opportunity. It’s one of the best addresses in the world.” Michelin, who’s the co-founder of the London-based property development and design firm Finchatton, is boyishly enthusiastic about his latest project, the new Twenty Grosvenor Square apartment building, despite it being some 13 years in the making. It was back in 2006 that the 250,000 sq ft site first came up for sale. Finchatton bid then, and lost.
“We were gutted,” he recalls, “but you can only pay what you can pay.” For whatever reason, the new owners never got around to developing the building – which sits opposite the old US Embassy, itself set to be turned into a five-star Rosewood hotel – and it sat empty until 2013, when it came onto the market again. Finchatton wasn’t going to miss out a second time. It pooled and managed a group of investors. Some £250m later – the property was arguably well undervalued given the potential return – it was theirs. “And,” says Michelin, “it’s the best thing I’ve ever worked on.”
That’s hardly surprising. The location is globally renowned. “It’s one of those very few places in the world of which you can say the name and everyone knows where you’re talking about,” Michelin suggests. “Eaton Square is one of them, Fifth Avenue in New York another. But there are very few.” Grosvenor Square has been home to royalty, prime ministers and titans of industry, and featured in the works of Dickens, Austen and Wilde. It’s where John Adams lived when he was America’s first ambassador to Great Britain. Then there is the building itself. The site of Twenty Grosvenor Square has been home to earls, dukes and barons, and, for a spell, the Italian embassy. Remodelled as flats between 1933 and 1935, it was seconded to the US Navy in 1939, and from 1943 was the headquarters for General Eisenhower’s orchestration of the recently commemorated D-Day landings. When renovation work began on the property in 2014, builders uncovered a lead-lined room hidden between floors, presumably used for the most top-secret of conversations. The walls in Eisenhower’s private study were painted with a giant world map, one of them – unlike the commonplace Mercator projection – with the United States placed firmly at the centre.
“Sadly it was too damaged to save,” says Michelin, “but it was a reminder of the globe-shaping decisions that were made in there. We did manage to save the giant marble eagle logo in the floor of the main entrance – it’s the kind of thing you always see in the lobby of the CIA in thrillers. Although more than half of sales have gone to Brits so far, many of the new apartments have attracted American buyers.” Planning permission was granted for the demolition of everything except the classical Italianate facade, “so Twenty Grosvenor Square isn’t just another shiny glass and steel building,” says Michelin. “We want this to be a listed building of the future, so generally we always went for the best materials even when we could have saved some money, because we knew the cheaper option just wouldn’t look as good in decades to come.”
That means Italian marble, 6,000 sq m of stone laid, the roof redone in Welsh slate, as well as the use of advanced materials such as thermally and acoustically high-grade glass from a specialist maker in Switzerland. And behind said facade is now an additional floor and some 37, three-, four- and five-bedroom super-swanky apartments, ranging in price from an eye-watering £17m to a positively sphincter-clenching £30m-plus “What we really needed as the icing on the cake was servicing,” explains Michelin. “What the kind of people who buy this kind of property typically lack is time, so we knew buyers would want as much of that saved as possible.” And who better to service such a building than a five star hotel brand? That’s why Twenty Grosvenor Square is the first standalone residential project with services provided by Four Seasons – the latest, and arguably the most spectacular, example of the trend for luxury-branded homes.
And they’re serious services too. Aside from the residence’s own amenities – a spa with a 25m pool, treatment room, fitness centre, games room, wine cellar, cinema, business suite, garden room, 26,000 sq ft car park and on and on – Four Seasons will provide concierge facilities, security, housekeeping, catering, car valeting, grocery shopping and a crèche. The Grosvenor Estate has taken back Grosvenor Square Garden – the biggest garden square in the West End -- and will be overhauling it over the next couple of years. Should Fido need to relieve himself, Four Seasons will be there with the poop scoop.
“Twenty Grosvenor Square would have found buyers anyway, but Four Seasons gives added credibility. And I think projects like this are the way forward for brands like that,” says Michelin. “People like hotels and the service they get in hotels, but they don’t typically want to live in a hotel. It’s not as cool as being in your own apartment. But you still want the service – without a lobby full of tourists or people smoking outside your front door. Four Seasons had been thinking about doing something like this for a long time – and we kind of fell into their lap with this project. They wanted their first residential project to be very impressive – and Grosvenor Square was clearly that.” “When the Grosvenor Square opportunity came along I was doing back-flips,” says Paul White, president of residential for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. “For a real estate guy it really doesn’t get much better. Planting a flag in standalone residences with one of the most famous squares in London was a chance to make a statement about our residential business. It’s not exactly an obscure location in a tertiary city, is it?”
Four Seasons is putting a lot of money into standalone residences: it has properties under development in Bahrain and Washington DC, with others in Los Angeles and San Francisco set to open next year. The idea of the branded residence is not new: the Sherry-Netherland hotel in New York is believed to have been the first to have operated serviced apartments alongside its guests rooms back in the 1920s. But it was Four Seasons that revamped the idea for the luxury market in the early 1990s.
Now it’s not alone in big brands looking to put their names to residences – fashion labels such as Missoni and Armani have done so over recent years, as have automotive companies, from Lamborghini to Aston Martin, which in July poured the foundations on its 66-floor, sail-shaped building in Miami. Luxury brands like these are starting to give hotel groups, such as Marriott and Ritz-Carlton, which also have residence properties, a run for their money. In many cases, developers simply pay a licence fee, typically between two and five per cent of gross income, to use a brand name. According to a Savills study last year, branded residences sell – for the time being at least – at an average 31 per cent premium over non-branded ones. And, as White points out, the Twenty Grosvenor Square set-up goes markedly deeper, not least because Four Seasons is the property’s manager.
“We’re never going to be doing condos of thousands of units,” he says. “We don’t even have plans to do another standalone residence like this one in London. Yes, high-net-worth individuals want location, but they also want scarcity. They want as much of their lifestyle curated as possible, including access to hotel-style services delivered with the same service standards.” It’s more about the experience of living there than the amenities, White adds. “These apartment owners don’t have to do anything – we’ll do their shopping, collect their dry cleaning, bring up the right car from their collection. That kind of service is invaluable to someone who’s short on time. They don’t really want room service at home. What they want is for a chef to come over at short notice when they’re hosting a dinner party.” A party to celebrate their new home, perhaps. “We have buyers who say they’ve been looking for two years and just haven’t been able to find what they want, and then have seen these apartments and bought within a week,” says Michelin. “There have been challenges putting this all together, moments of real stress. But it’s been well worth it.”