Susan Stuart describes the attraction of a ramshackle building and the subsequent renovation that turned it into a boutique hotel
Words by Pamela Buxton
What is your background?
I am a chartered accountant and worked for 30 years in financial services, with the last 20 in investment banking. I left the City in 2006 and worked for seven years for a small horticultural therapy charity – one of my big loves is gardening. In 2013 I moved down from London to Penzance, which I already knew well, to have a think about what I wanted to do next.
How did you come to open Chapel House?
I soon noticed Chapel House was for sale – it had been on the market for £1.3m since 2007 – and then some time later saw that offers were being invited in excess of £500,000, which really pricked my interest. I went to see it, loved it, and despite knowing not to do things on impulse, went ahead with an offer. Only then did I think about what I could do with it – turning it into a B&B or a small boutique hotel was an obvious idea – which accountants know is the wrong way to start a business. But I reasoned that the worst thing that could happen would be that I’d have to sell it again.
Susan Stuart took on the decorating herself, stripping the walls and coming up with the interior design
What appealed to you about the building when you first saw it?
It’s just magnificent. It’s a heavy-duty house with brickwork that’s three or four courses deep, but there’s so much space and light. Built in 1790 by an Admiral Linzee, it’s Grade II listed and has been variously a hotel, a home for evacuees, and a boarding house over the years. More recently it was the home of the Penzance Arts Club.
What type of hotel did you want to create?
I’d travelled an awful lot for business and I knew I didn’t want it to be either a cosy B&B with Axminster carpets and floral wallpaper, or somewhere really slick. So I thought about the places I’d really enjoyed – places that were exceptionally relaxed, calm and comfortable, where you could just kick off your shoes and lay down on the sofa or wander around the house doing whatever you wanted to do. I wanted it not to feel like a hotel, but like a house with intuitive service so that everything just appeared when you wanted it.
How did you go about the renovation?
It was in a dreadful condition. It looked rundown and I could see that there was a hell of a lot of work to do. There were no en suite bathrooms, the central heating was knackered, and I’d never seen so many fuse boxes. The floors bounced and the lathe and plaster walls moved if you pushed them. I’d never worked with an architect or designer before but I knew that I needed one. As well as the repairs, I recognised that the house also needed a degree of remodelling, both on the lower ground floor where it had been divided up unsympathetically over the years and on the top floor, which was full of very dark little rooms.
The design and construction of the hotel took two and a half years
How and why did you choose your architect?
I did it mostly by word of mouth. I drew up a list of architects with the help of a local estate agent. When I met Keith Bell, we got on like a house on fire and I went on to appoint his practice Loci Architecture. I particularly liked that when he talked about the project, he referred to it as our project rather than his project.
How did you collaborate on the design vision?
Keith and I started by talking about the vision for the house and how it could work as a hotel – it was a very long conversation before we got on to talking about design. We wanted to capitalise on the light and the views and the colours of the sea – previously the whole house was painted oxblood red, which was horrible. And I wanted it to look like a house – the restaurant is like a large-scale domestic kitchen and eating area. If the hotel failed, I thought I could always sell it as a family house – it was dual-purpose.
After seeing we’d budgeted £45,000 for the redecorating, I decided to get involved and do that myself, stripping the walls and coming up with the interior design. I found out that I had a previously undiscovered eye for colour.
How long did the work take?
It was a massive collaboration between Keith, myself, and our contractor. It took two and a half years for the design and construction, which included a complete strip out, new joists, new heating and electrics, and a chimney completely rebuilt from the lower ground upwards. On the top floor, Keith created a new, long, glass dormer, which made a huge difference to light levels while satisfying the conservation officer by retaining the same roof profile.
Stuart’s ambition was to make it ‘look like a house’
What do you like most about the result?
Everything – I can’t think of anything I don’t really like! I really enjoyed working with Keith in particular – I liked having someone you could bounce ideas off who knew a lot more than I did. It was a real dialogue. I really valued that there was no stop in the collaborative process right up to when the whole thing was finished and signed off.
Do you have any future design projects in mind?
I’ve already extended by buying the house next door and creating two more rooms that can be used either as self-catering or as part of the hotel. But I think that’ll be my last design project – unless I win the lottery.