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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 June, 2004, 12:44 GMT 13:44 UK
New life for decaying grandeur
Grange Park
Grange Park: From wreck to opera venue ( Clive Boursnall)

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Long before upstart trader Nick Leeson put the boot into Barings Bank by secretly running up more than $1bn of liabilities, financial difficulties had scuttled one of the key assets of the bank's founders.

Grange House, a stately home in Hampshire, degenerated fast after it was sold by the Barings family in 1933. Unloved and abandoned, it was effectively derelict by the early 1970s.

Thirty years later, the estate's dramatic restoration into a summer opera destination has earned it an architecture award.

The opera auditorium

Originally built as a Greek revival mansion in the mid-17th Century, Grange Park's recent transformation culminated in the conversion and extension of a Grade I listed building into a 500-seat auditorium.

Inspired by the Regency Theatre in Bury St Edmunds - which itself was designed by the original principle architect of Grange Park - the theatre seats are cast-offs from Covent Garden Opera House's own restoration.

The feel of decaying grandeur extends to the ceiling, which architect David Lloyd Jones chose to leave in its crumbling state. As a result, billowing nets hang above the audience to catch falling fragments that might otherwise interrupt a delicate aria.

Illuminated underfoot display boxes, which exhibit pottery and glass found during excavations, help maintain the site's sense of history.

( Clive Boursnall)

The architecture critic for the Times, Marcus Binney, commented: "The aesthetic principle of the new theatre is to instil a sense of transience, not permanence. The still fragmentary ceiling floats above the stalls as if part of the stage scenery."

Across the way from the auditorium, the ground floor of another house serves as dining room (see picture right). It too has been left in a "semi-derelict" state - crumbling walls and ceilings - although newly-fitted chandeliers add a dash of welcome opulence to the setting.

"The plan was to show the house off in a semi-derelict state," says Lloyd Jones, director of Studio E architects. "I can't think of any precedents for this."

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