What has the restoration of an old house taught us?

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Written by Alexandra & Jamie

Owners of Riverside Dream

Alexandra Lesinska owns interior design house Design Box London www.designboxlondon.com


Alexandra & Jamie, Styled Home Studios Hosts and owners of the beautiful Riverside Dream, reflect on what they’ve learned during the restoration of their listed Cotswold home, which blends quintessential Cotswold cottage character with classic Georgian dimensions. The house is an exhibition of architectural styles from the mid 1600s to late Victoriana and takes its name from the River Thames, which used to serve as the southern boundary of the house’s garden. Interior designer Alexandra Lesinska, co-owner of Design Box London, has subtly threaded a fresh, sensitive, natural yet contemporary vibe throughout this family home following her family’s relocation to the Cotswolds in 2020.  Equally appealing as backdrop for sophisticated brand and product shoots as well as grittier renovation and home improvement briefs, Riverside Dream is a versatile gem.


What has the restoration of an old house taught us? That nothing is quite as it seems!


The challenge


It may seem obvious to some, but we have been struck by how important the initial construction of our house (about 350 years ago) has been in influencing our restoration of it today. You might be forgiven for thinking that modern developments in building practices could easily be applied to older buildings, but we’ve found that there are very few substitutes for the principles, materials and techniques that were the habit of builders, craftsmen and artisans in the seventeenth century.  

In the seventeenth century, moisture was the prevailing preoccupation of builders. It remains so today. All that seems to have changed is our appetite for moisture in our houses. It would be fair to say that the building’s relationship with moisture is one, if not the most, significant influence on the narrative of our eighteen month long, and as yet incomplete, restoration. Paints, plasters and finishes: we’re choosing all of these with a nod to their longer-term relationship with moisture. The irony is that this forces us to look at more classical and contemporaneous methods and materials, because although materials like lime plaster, mortar and render do last, they weren’t in fact intended to.  It has surprised us to learn that there are precious few modern materials that perform in the same way as these old ones and so, if we want to achieve the balance between airflow, capillary action etc etc then we have no choice to look back in time.  This no doubt pleased conservation teams and it is funny to think that something used for half a millennia hasn’t been bettered.


We have quickly come to understand that our plans simply cannot be rushed. A slower pace is baked into the geography of rural England. The town of Lechlade is in the eastern part of The Cotswolds District; minutes from medieval Burford and bobbing gently on the River Thames that runs along the southern border of the town. When confronted with the need to gain Listed Building Consent for almost any meaningful alteration, it became clear that The Cotswolds is like it is – beautiful – precisely because consent for the sorts of modernisation we have introduced is hard won. ‘Conservation Officers’ are focused on preserving old and precious features and practices. Yes, we would think twice before buying a listed building again, but we must accept that the listing of structures like Riverside House is what ensures they remain unique and beguiling.




The joy


One of the most enjoyable things about the last 2 years of renovation has been peeling back the layers; seeing what previous owners have and have not done. Marvelling at certain inexplicable decisions and applauding the detailing, craftsmanship, landscaping or masonry that has survived because it is so captivating.  


The cliche with these old houses is that previous owners will have stripped out original features or made curious choices with regards to repurposing or adding rooms. This has firmly been the case with Riverside. However, we feel the removal of fireplaces or original flooring, erecting of walls and the pouring of concrete means that we can now tailor what’s left to our preferences. The upshot is that we have a degree of flexibility that would not otherwise be enjoyed in a house with more of its original interiors. Further, while it is a shame that so little has survived, we’d rather have a clean slate than be stuck with something we’d never have chosen anyway. For instance, the east facing 30” by 15” drawing room was once two rooms. The dividing wall was knocked through in the early 60s, we think, to create a uniquely appealing space. With the dividing wall went two original fireplaces. The opening for one was kept, but the mantel and fire furniture is no more. Stylistically this presented us with a choice. The current fireplace is not original, so we could make a case for reinstating something more in keeping…but, what is there is not unattractive.  


We also know of at least two fireplaces that have been covered over. We are under no obligation to reveal them, but they may be attractive. And this is the dilemma that faces many owners of old buildings: do we roll the dice and explore further? It is a risk vs rewards decision, especially when working within a budget.


Although we haven’t got many ‘original’ or ‘period’ features to play with, the house – as a structure – more than compensates us. The 2m high original sash windows in the Georgian half of the house are both rare and magnificent.  We have used breathable paints throughout, and the muted paint scheme used is intended to draw out the lustre and details of fixtures and fittings. This has worked particularly well with the stunning Jim Lawrence lights in the reception hall, for example.


As a family home and shoot location, Riverside Dream is being gradually coaxed into 2023. As the current custodians we feel the best way to honour the house is to reassert and celebrate its heritage through material finishes, while at the same time embracing its important role as a stage for contemporary family life. Restoring an old house has taught us a lot but there is still a lot to learn. We’re enjoying the journey! 


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