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Sir John Soane's Private Apartment Restoration

Julian Harrap Architects



Sir John Soane's Museum

Project Status


Year Completed



1,056 sq. feet



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Text by Katie Gerfen

There are few houses that hold more fascination for architects than that of Sir John Soane. The three-townhouse complex on London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields not only holds Soane’s extensive collection of artworks and architectural models, but also serves as an example of the British architect’s experimentation with interior layouts, lighting, and decoration. Until May, the only areas on view have been those he intended to be public. The second floor of the main house at No. 13, which contains Soane’s private apartments, has been closed to visitors since the 1860s, but thanks to a meticulous restoration by London’s Julian Harrap Architects (JHA), the suite of rooms is now open to all.

The research for the restoration took nearly two years, almost twice the length of the actual construction period that followed. The effort was focused on re-creating the space as it was in 1837, when Soane died; it’s the key date for all restoration of the museum, as stipulated in the Act of Parliament that gifted it to the country. The architects and historians consulted the museum’s archives, which included engravings of the rooms that were prepared for an illustrated 1835 catalog. One such engraving of the Model Room is so detailed that “the pictures can be identified by this drawing,” says JHA partner Lyall Thow. “It would have been done by someone in Soane’s office, so Soane would have been standing over him looking at him drawing it saying, ‘Show this and show that.’ ” The team also consulted Soane’s own writings and the museum curators’ records.

Until 2008, these curators used the private rooms either as their home or office, and some made substantive changes. Varnish had been applied to the perimeter of the wood floors (specifically, to the areas left exposed around large area rugs), wallpaper had been painted over (and over), architraves and elevations had been reworked, and entire rooms had been reconfigured. Nearly two centuries’ worth of alterations needed to be undone while the rest of the museum was still functioning—not just the public areas on the lower floors, but also the offices on the level above—providing no small logistical challenge.

Helpfully, the cost of materials spurred many of the past renovators to reuse Soane’s original materials. (When curator James Wilde carried out the most extensive retrofit in 1889, he removed doors and partitions and reused them in new cabinetry and decorative elements.) This allowed the restoration team to reclaim many original materials and return them to their rightful places, rather than having to resort to replication. But, Thow says, “if the archive and the drawings don’t tell you everything, sometimes you have to step into the mind of what he was trying to achieve.”

The result is a faithful return to Soane’s original vision. “I love to think of him not being able to sleep and wandering around the model stand,” Thow says. “It’s so interesting that he chose to sleep almost among his collection—he was so passionate about architecture.”

Project Credits
Project: The reinstatement of Sir John Soane’s Model Room and private apartments, London
Client: Sir John Soane’s Museum
Architect: Julian Harrap Architects, London . Lyall Thow, Caroline Wilson
M/E Engineer: The Spencer Clarke Partnership 
Structural Engineer: Mann Williams
General Contractor: Kingswood Construction
Lighting Consultant: Charles Marsden-Smedley
Wallpaper Specialist: Sandiford & Mapes
Specialist Decorators: Hare & Humphreys

Furniture Restorers: Arlington Conservation

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