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Luton Hoo

luton hoo
Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire

Luton Hoo is a mansion in Bedfordshire, England, on the edge of the large town of Luton. The unusual name "Hoo" is a saxon word meaning the spur of a hill, and is more commonly found in East Anglia. Luton Hoo is not mentioned in the Domesday book, but a family called de Hoo occupied a manor house on the site in the 13th century. Successive houses on the site seem to have changed hands several times until in 1762 the then owner, Francis Hearne (MP for Bedford), sold the estate for £94,700 to John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute. Following an unhappy period as Prime Minister from 1762 to 1763, Bute decided to concentrate his energies on his Bedfordshire estate at Luton Hoo.

The present house was built for the 3rd Earl of Bute by the neoclassical architect Robert Adam. Work commenced in 1767. The original plan had been for a grand and magnificent new house. However, this plan was never fully executed and much of the work was a remodelling of the older house. Building work was interrupted by a fire in 1771, but by 1774 the house, though incomplete, was inhabited. Dr. Samuel Johnson visiting the house in 1781 is quoted as saying, "This is one of the places I do not regret coming to see....in the house magnificence is not sacrificed to convenience, nor convenience to magnificence".

Luton Hoo was one of the largest houses for which Adam was wholly responsible. While Adam was working on the mansion the landscape gardener Capability Brown was enlarging and redesigning the park; formerly approximately 300 acres (1.2 km²) it was now enlarged to 1,200 acres (4.9 km²). Brown dammed the River Lea to form two lakes, one of which is 60 acres (240,000 m²) in size. In the early 20th century, part of the park overlooked by the south-west facade mansion was transformed into formal gardens.

Robert Adam's completed mansion was transformed by the architect Sir Robert Smirke (1781–1867) circa 1830, following the occupation of the 3rd Earl's grandson, the 2nd Marquess of Bute. Smirke redesigned the house (with the exception of the south front) to resemble its present form today, complete with a massive portico, similar to that designed by Adam but never built. Robert Smirke was a leading architect of the era. His early work and domestic designs, such as that at Eastnor Castle, were often in a medieval style; he seems to have reserved his Greek revival style for public buildings such as the British Museum. Hence Luton Hoo, neither gothic nor strictly Greek revival, is an unusual example of him using a classical style for domestic use, which perhaps he felt would be sympathetic to Adam's original conception.

In 1843 a devastating fire occurred and much of the house and its contents were destroyed. Following the fire the house remained a burnt shell until the estate was sold in 1848 to John Leigh, a Liverpool solicitor and property speculator. He rebuilt the derelict shell in the style and manner of Smirke, rather than to Adam's earlier plan. The Leigh family continued to own Luton Hoo until 1903, when on the death of John Leigh's daughter-in-law, who had late in life married Christian de Falbe, the Danish ambassador to England, the estate was sold to the diamond magnate, Sir Julius Wernher.

Wernher had the interior remodelled in the early 20th century by the architects of the Ritz Hotel, Charles Mewes and Arthur Davis. It was at this time that the mansard roof was added, in order to increase the amount of staff accommodation. This alteration, coupled with the newly installed casement windows, gives the house something of a European appearance.

The lavish redesigning of the interior in the belle epoque style resulted in a magnificent backdrop for Wernher' acclaimed art collection. The marble-walled dining room was designed to display Beauvais tapestries, while the newly installed curved, marble staircase surrounded Bergonzoli's statue "The Love of Angels". At the centre of the house the massive Blue hall displayed further tapestries, Louis XV furniture, and Sevres porcelain. Sir Julius Wernher's widow, later Lady Ludlow, added her collection of English porcelain to the treasures of the house.

The Wernhers' great art collection, equal to that of their neighbours in nearby Buckinghamshire, the Rothschilds', was later further enhanced by the marriage of Julius Wernher's son Harold to Anastasia Romanova, a member of the former Russian Imperial family, generally known as "Lady Zia". She brought to the collection an incomparable assembly of renaissance enamels and Russian artefacts, including works by the Russian Imperial court jeweller Peter Carl Fabergé. For many years the collection and house were open to the public. Many of the Fabergé items were, however, stolen in the 1980s.
Following Lady Zia's death, the estate passed to her grandson Nicholas Phillips, whose untimely death in the late 20th century caused the sale of the estate. The priceless collection is now on permanent display at Ranger's House in London.

Luton Hoo is now in the process of conversion to a luxury hotel.