‘WE WERE looking for somewhere that would be a good family home,” Katie Donnelly says of this townhouse at 6 Palmerston Place in Edinburgh’s West End, which Katie shares with her husband John and their sons, Struan, three, and Gethin, two. Today, No 6 is a beautiful home with an immaculate interior that flows between four floors. The attention to detail is incredible as period features are complemented by contemporary design.
The quality of the materials says it all, from the oak herringbone parquet flooring that flows throughout the ground floor to the limestone flagstones on the open-plan lower level family room and kitchen with its solid oak cabinetry and Carrara marble tiled splashback – which clads an entire wall. There is a gorgeous blue-grey palette that flows from room to room, all by Paint and Paper Library, with lighting by Jim Lawrence.
Two years ago, when Katie and John saw the For Sale sign, this five-bedroom townhouse (which also has a rear garden) couldn’t have looked more different. Today you’re likely to spot a tram nearby, whereas in 2012 the whole of the West End was a building site.
No 6 was a commercial property. The building had gone through various uses before eventually being bought by the Chartered Institute of Housing. “We hadn’t considered a commercial property,” Katie admits, “but we couldn’t find anything that was quite right for us, and when we came to see this we fell in love with it immediately. The house just had a nice feel about it.”
Remarkably, the Donnellys had never tackled any type of refurbishment project before arriving here in September 2012. The couple, who both work in financial services, had lived in rented accommodation as their work had taken them to the likes of Bermuda and Guernsey, so they had never had the opportunity to put down longer-term roots.
So why opt for such a large-scale project to cut their teeth on? The top-to-bottom refurbishment and redesign took a year to complete. “The previous owners had taken good care of the building, but we knew we’d have to do everything,” Katie says. “Whereas with other houses you’re never quite sure where to draw the line, here we had carte blanche; the house was hiding no secrets.”
The couple had taken a 12-month sabbatical and this gave them the chance to project manage here, although, given the length of the project, they did end up juggling long days in the office with the refurbishment. John also stripped the house at the outset, removing all the vinyl wallpaper in one night and ripping up room after room of carpet tiles. “I don’t know how many skips we had, but it was double digit,” he says.
“The challenge for us was, because it’s a conversion, we were held to the newest of building standards, but in a Victorian townhouse,” Katie says. “We were fortunate in that we had a very good building officer who walked us through the process, and a very good architect, Aidan Ruthven, who was able to balance our needs with those of the contractor. He was the ultimate diplomat.”
The couple agree that the process was an intense learning curve. As John says: “It was all encompassing.” The Donnellys were also fortunate that the principal structural changes had been made to the building in the 1950s and 1960s – on the ground floor, for example, where an opening means that the front and rear rooms are now open plan, creating a huge interconnected drawing room and dining room.
“We were in the rare position of having a townhouse that had been made suitable for open-plan living,” Katie says, and they enhanced this further when opening up a wall on the lower ground level to create the combined family room and kitchen.
The ground floor spaces may offer the “wow factor” of grandeur, scale and period detail, but this lower level feels like a space to hang out, whether curled up on a sofa watching TV, or gathered around the Silestone-topped island in the kitchen.
Throughout, they were committed to using high quality materials and luxurious finishes, but in a way that feels modern and understated.
“Being consistent with the finish was important to us,” Katie says, which is why the limestone flags are continued into the cupboard spaces downstairs. It’s why the large larder includes the same cabinetry as the kitchen (all by Neptune) combined with a Victorian dresser Katie sourced on eBay.
They preferred dealing with people face-to-face, so sourced all the tiling from Fired Earth, and the bathroom fittings from Victor Paris.
The couple also discovered the original Victorian encaustic tiles in the hallway and the fireplaces. They sourced period fire surrounds from Edinburgh Architectural Salvage Yard, along with period doors where the originals were missing, and installed the traditional cast iron radiators.
The entire first floor (which would originally have been the drawing room) is now a master suite, and includes a freestanding cast iron bath in the main room, defined by a large section of flooring laid in Carrara and black marble, and with glazed doors leading into the en-suite.
It would have been easier to have sourced a new bath, but the couple opted for an original piece that was restored and re-enamelled. As Katie says: “The detail in the house took a lot of passion and a lot of time.”
She adds: “We’ve lived in old cottages and beach houses, and each place has had its own individual characteristics, but this house is just calm. Someone gave us good advice saying that the work would cost twice the price and take twice as long as we initially thought, and they were right. It’s been a labour of love.” n
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