Article by Alison Roberts, (published September 2023, The Archer)
On the morning of 21 July, residents of East Finchley, Highgate and beyond awoke to the smell of smoke lingering in the air. The Bishop’s Avenue was closed off whilst fire crews dealt with the aftermath of an enormous blaze which had destroyed the road’s largest residence, known as ‘The Towers’.
The Towers, which had stood empty for years, was once owned by Gracie Fields, but is not to be confused with her former home ‘Tower’, which once occupied the neighbouring plot.
‘Tower’ in fact referred to a 28-bedroom mansion built around 1929 for Gracie, designed by her husband Archie Pitt and named after “Mr Tower of London”, the music hall show which had made her famous.
When Gracie and her husband separated in the early 1930s, she donated the house and grounds to the NHS. By 1936, the grounds had been divided up, and another house built on a large plot at the far end of Tower’s garden.
Gracie’s former home was initially used as an isolation ward, but after six high-explosive bombs fell on the North Middlesex Hospital during WWII, damaging several buildings, it became the maternity wing of North Middlesex Hospital. Expectant mothers described staying in a huge house with a staircase fit for a Queen, a huge ballroom and an indoor swimming pool which had an island with palm trees in the middle!
When the war ended, the new building at the end of the garden was eventually completed and this became the ‘Tower Maternity Annex – North Middlesex Hospital’. This newer building remained a maternity hospital right through to the 1970s.
The original ‘Tower’ was acquired by the Association of Jewish Refugees and in 1962 it opened, much extended, as a Jewish care home named Heinrich Stahl House. The building set new standards at the time for accommodation of the elderly, with its design winning a Class I Commendation from the Civic Trust.
By 1968 a further nine houses (now named White Lodge Close) were built in the middle section of Tower’s former gardens, each a miniature copy of Tower in one way or another.
In 1988 Heinrich Stahl House was extended once again, gaining a new wing comprising 17 ensuite rooms. However, by 1999, the nature of care for the elderly was changing, and the home’s managers, Otto Schiff Housing Association, decided to close it and sell the site. The 2-acre site was sold for £16.25m and Tower was demolished and replaced with three apartment blocks.
Meanwhile, in 1992, the former maternity hospital, which had been built at the far end of the original plot, was purchased by the Saudi royal family for £10m – reportedly less than half its asking price – and the building was demolished and replaced with an enormous house, named ‘The Towers’. Valued at £25m, The Towers became the most expensive new house in Britain. Tory-led Barnet Council came under fire for allowing it to be built without planning permission and was instructed by the local council ombudsman to pay a record £50,000 compensation to a neighbour whose house had been devalued by the development.
The Towers included a banqueting hall, indoor squash court, swimming complex, gym and sunken dance floor, but alas it was never lived in, and the house stood empty and unloved for two decades. As the house fell into decay, it became a favourite destination of urban explorers.
In 2013 The Towers was purchased by Isle of Man-based developers who hoped to demolish the building and replace it with an 8-storey block of 65 flats. It was still the subject of a planning application to Barnet Council when fire tore through the building last month damaging the ground and first floors and destroying the roof.
The blaze came only weeks after one of the derelict mansions in White Lodge Close was badly damaged by fire and a year after a large derelict mansion on the opposite side of The Bishops Avenue met the same fate.
Since the 1980’s, The Bishop’s Avenue, dubbed Billionaire’s Row, has become famous for its rotting derelict mansions, with an estimated two thirds of properties on the road standing empty. Yet it still seems sad to see a building which was once filled with hopes and dreams go to waste.