Anger at Helensburgh ‘Hell House’ conservation plan

Residents in an exclusive street in Scotland’s second most expensive town are fighting plans to convert a mansion built by one of the country’s celebrated architects.

“Hell House”, as it has been dubbed by locals, sits directly opposite the celebrated Charles Rennie Mackintosh Hill House in Helensburgh, near Glasgow.

However, despite the classic designs which have seen both properties hailed as jewels in the heritage crown of the town, their fortunes could not have been more different.

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While Mackintosh’s creation is looked after by the National Trust and attracts more than 40,000 visitors a year, including celebrities such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, its neighbour built by William Leiper has been left to rot.

Now, a battle has broken out between residents and a conservation architect who wants to save the building, but only if he is able to convert part of it to flats and build more houses in the once-landscaped grounds.

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Morar House, originally named Drumadoon, is an 11-bedroom red-tiled mansion with commanding views of the River Clyde built by Leiper for a wealthy Glasgow shipping family around the same time Mackintosh created Hill House.

Following his successes with Dowanhill Church of Scotland in Glasgow, Templeton’s carpet factory on Glasgow Green, the Sun Insurance office in West George Street and the interior of Glasgow City Chambers’ banqueting hall, Leiper established a reputation as one of Scotland’s leading Gothic architects.

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However, while Hill House has been proposed as a world heritage site, the Leiper house fell into decay until Edinburgh-based conservation architect Lorn Macneal bought it for £322,000 at auction last October.

He has now applied to Argyll and Bute Council to convert the interior of the mansion into 11 flats and build a house and two mews cottages in the grounds to offset the estimated £1.5 million cost of saving as much of the mansion as possible.

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Mr Macneal’s previous projects include work on Falkland Palace in Fife, the Pineapple House near Falkirk and Stevenson House in East Lothian, which is Scotland’s second-oldest inhabited A-listed mansion.

“At the moment, we have Hill House on one side of the road and Hell House on the other,” said Mr Macneal. “I want to create something that is in keeping with the landscape setting and befitting a conservation area.”

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However, his plans have run into opposition from residents of the street where properties fetch up to £800,000. Helensburgh itself has previously been named the second most expensive town in the country in surveys carried out by the Bank of Scotland.

Retired businessman John Ashworth, whose property borders Morar House, said: “The proposed development as it stands would constitute a gross intrusion into my privacy.

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“The plans have been designed to protect the facade of the property the public will see from Hill House but it means the rear wall of the new development will run for some 60 yards just four metres from the boundary of my property, about two and half storeys high. I don’t believe that is in keeping with a conservation area.”

Helensburgh Civic Society have called on the council to seek the views of Historic Scotland before making a decision.

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Much of the interior of the building has already been lost to dry rot, damp, decay and vandalism over the years and Mr Macneal has warned that if he is refused planning permission the project will have to be abandoned, fuelling fears the Leiper house will be demolished.