London’s Second-Biggest House Faces A Dilemma
Buckingham Palace is the biggest house in London. What’s the second biggest? That would be the Grade II listed house Witanhurst in Highgate, once owned by Sir Arthur Crosfield, the English soap and candle magnate, who had the place designed in Queen Anne style. He chose Witanhurst, a combination of the old Anglo-Saxon words “witan” (a parliament) and “hurst” (a wooded hill), and he used it as a means to climb London’s social ladder. The house contained 25 bedrooms, a 70-foot-long ballroom and a glass rotunda. There are spectacular views from its gardens over Hampstead Heath. For decades, parties at Witanhurst attracted the rich, the famous, the royals—including Elizabeth II in 1951.
Now it has been restored, but by whom and why? In June, 2010, the local council approved plans to redevelop the house and 5.5 acres of grounds, maintaining Witanhurst as a “family home.” But mystery surrounded its ownership until the New Yorker magazine dug into its secrets, discovering that in front of the main house, the new owners have built a vast underground world of a basement, more than 40,000 square feet of it. They also found that it was most likely owned by a Russian fertilizer company whose billionaire owners were planning to move in.
So why the secrecy? It’s not illegal to own a large house for private use, even a listed one. Well, Putin’s government takes aggressive steps toward its own billionaires who bury their money overseas – they’re seen as being disloyal to Russia, and tend to get their assets raided. Which would still be okay if the family who own the house kept their heads down and their mouths shut, but some of this clan – especially the younger girls – tend to pop up on Instagram waving guns about.
The owners of Witanhurst are vulgarian super-rich who need to be seen as wealthy, but cannot declare their identity without risk. It’s no secret that Russian oligarchs own great chunks of Hampstead and Highgate, ploughing suspect billions into property in a highly secretive free-for-all, but Witanhurst has taken it to a new level. And as London’s second-largest house is soon set to overtake Buckingham Palace in size and become the biggest in the capital, the new owners, creeping in an out in blacked-out limos while their children post selfies on social networks, may find they’ve brought down the very attention they don’t want and cannot afford to attract.