Transforming a former Edinburgh hotel into a home

Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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JOHNSBURN House had been on the market for around four years by the time Sandra and Alastair Love came to view the handsome B-listed Scots Baronial building in May 2010.

Previously a hotel and restaurant, the property was in a poor condition at the time. “It was being sold as a commercial property, but no one was brave enough to take it on except for us,” Sandra recalls.

Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Located on Johnsburn Road in Balerno, just seven miles west of Edinburgh’s city centre, this property wasn’t just a project waiting to happen – it was a refurbishment begging to happen. As Sandra says: “The house was built in 1760 and has so much history, it was a sin to let it go to rack and ruin.”

The couple are no novices to the renovation process: they have renovated properties for 30 of the 40 years they’ve been married, although never with a project as demanding as this. 
Sandra also used to run her own interior design business. “We’ve always loved anything to do with interiors,” she says. Although the couple – who have two grown-up children, Katie and Andrew – initially approached this project with the idea of creating a small boutique hotel, they changed their minds after realising they didn’t want the ongoing workload of the hotelier’s life.

Instead, this was to become their home. The Loves stripped the property back to its bare bones and started again. “We’ve taken it from a complete shell, but with lots of original features that we’ve restored,” Sandra explains. While Alastair focused on the building and structural elements, Sandra concentrated on the interior.

To put the scale of the project in context, consider that the renovation took two and a half years, and the couple were here every day supervising the work. They initially rented a property in Edinburgh’s Morningside for over a year while the major work was being tackled. The house sits in more than an acre of gardens and grounds, and includes a triple garage and a one-bedroom cottage, previously used as a function suite. The couple overhauled the cottage before finishing the main house, and lived here for five months while the work was completed, finally moving in October.

Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Johnsburn House has been granted a new life. Each of the windows was removed, refurbished and reinstated, and the original shutters were restored or replaced. New central heating was installed along with traditional-style radiators, and the house rewired. The fireplaces were refurbished while the incredible plaster ceiling in the drawing room – previously painted in green, gold and pink – was restored. “I wanted to make this ceiling kind of French-looking, so I chose all these chalky Farrow & Ball colours,” Sandra says, and the three subtly different shades used pick out the decorative plasterwork to stunning effect.

This ceiling explains a lot about Sandra’s approach to the interior as it demonstrates a meticulous eye for detail blended with a respect for the character of the house. If there is one thing that stands out about Johnsburn House it is the quality of the detail and finishing. The vast dining-kitchen-family space is an obvious highlight. Previously three rooms – the kitchen for the hotel and two large pantries, it has French doors that open on to a terrace. The kitchen was made bespoke by Murray & Murray, including the mantelpiece that frames the double Aga and was designed by Sandra, and the window seats with built-in storage. The timber panelling was also added to frame the windows, and this, along with the window seats and the kitchen itself, was painted in Farrow & Ball’s Manor House Gray.

“I took a long time choosing colours,” Sandra says, “but I knew I didn’t want anything too modern or bright.” This is the first kitchen that Murray & Murray had ever painted in this hue. “I have a massive amount of Spode, and blue and white china that my mother kept collecting for me, and when I saw the blue with this shade, it goes together perfectly,” Sandra observes.

And there are views to admire. From the kitchen you can look out towards the burn and the waterfall on one side, and through the French doors to the garden on the other.

Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Picture: Phil Wilkinson

This sense of craftsmanship and quality here is just as apparent in the main bathroom and three en-suites that serve the five bedrooms. Sandra sourced the tiling and fittings from Fired Earth. The main bathroom features white Carrara marble tiling while the two guest en-suites are finished in Travertine. The master en-suite features a freestanding ‘Babylon’ bath sitting on the stone floor (with underfloor heating), and with a ‘Bastide’ painted oak washstand with an ivory glazed lavastone top and twin basins.

Aside from the furniture in the master bedroom, the majority of the furniture has been with the couple over the years. The dining furniture was bought 25 years ago from a place in Provence that specialised in handmade pieces, while the drawing room furniture was re-upholstered, with Sandra bringing everything up to date in a more contemporary fabric.

The one-bedroom cottage has been finished to the same high standard. It’s a great ‘guest wing’ for visitors who prefer their independence and it also has holiday-letting potential.

When asked what has exceeded her expectations, Sandra credits the dining-kitchen, not only for its style but also for how this space has been used since the couple moved in. Along with the formal dining room and the hallway, it creates a lovely flow, and this part of the house came into its own when the couple’s daughter, Katie, got married last December and the Loves had 55 guests for a buffet. On the wedding day this dining-kitchen was full of activity. “The bridesmaids had all stayed over and we were in the kitchen in the morning with make-up getting done in one corner and the hairdresser in the other,” Sandra recalls.

Sandra and Alastair can leave Johnsburn House with a sense of mission accomplished: when no one else wanted to take this house on, they did, and with incredible results. k

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