Hidden In Plain Sight: The Albany
There are places in London that fail to be noticed because they’re protected not just by wealth but by class. You might find yourself in an elegant street filled with architecturally fascinating houses, but the urge to hurry on is encouraged by private security guards or a look about the place that says ‘You have no business here.’
The Albany (or simply, ‘Albany’) is rather unusual. You don’t find many photos of it online, probably because there are lots of rules and regulations; ‘no whistling, no noise, no publicity’. It’s a three story ‘bachelor apartment complex’ built five years before the American declaration of Independence, in plain sight right on Piccadilly, yet few people notice it. It was occupied by Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany (hence the confusion over the definite article; residents favour dropping it) and subsequently turned into 69 apartments or ‘sets’.
From the entry off Piccadilly the vista that opens before you is complete and timeless, but in keeping with the period it’s mostly for show. Like a lot of prestigious old London properties the back of the building is unattractive. But lying to the east of the Burlington Arcade and the Royal Academy of Arts, a minute’s walk from Piccadilly Circus, Albany might be fifty miles away from London. It’s in complete contrast to the chaos of Piccadilly Circus, yet situated right within it.
So who can’t live here? Anyone with less than a couple of million – the sets vary in size but the smallest are very small indeed and not much of a bargain. A larger one on two floors will set you back about five million, but they’re still smallish. You buy into Albany because of the prestige. There are no children under 14 and you no longer have to be a bachelor, but residents are vetted – unusually for London – by a daunting residents’ committee. That means no riff-raff, which in turn means it’s about class, not money, although times have changed a little on that score.
And what a roll-call of previous occupants! They include (and this is just a grab at the first few names I spotted) Byron, Wordsworth, Gladstone, Lord Stanley, Sir Thomas Beecham, Isaiah Berlin, Dame Edith Evans, Sir Kenneth Clark, Bill Nighy, Aldous Huxley, JB Priestley, Terence Stamp. ‘The story of Albany is largely the story of the people who have lived there,’ wrote Sheila Birkenhead in Peace in Piccadilly in 1958.
It’s rare that you get to see interiors of the building, but as far as I can tell the sets are poky and dark, laid out in a way that prevents any radical redesign. But the rooms look private and quiet. Recently a New York designer, intent on ripping out the interior of hers, came up against the full might of the committee in charge of her Listed Building status and eventually abandoned the idea. When Soho’s oldest houses came up for sale in the early 1980s many a moderniser discovered a Georgian fireplace behind a wall that would prevent any repurposing of interiors.
But unlike the more raffish, bastardised Aldwych, Albany remains an enclave. There are many more dotted across the capital, as we shall see.