Big in Balham

We take a look inside Du Cane Court, an art deco gem in London's Balham and meet the property manager who keeps this iconic block running smoothly

Du Cane Court is something of a revelation. Not only is it Europe’s biggest privately owned block where all residents are housed under one roof, but it is a masterpiece of early twentieth century design, retaining a myriad of art deco features dating from 1936. This architecturally significant building is home to more than 1000 residents who live in 676 flats, linked by more than a mile of corridors.

To give an idea of the sheer size of the estate, addresses at the block use more than 20 different postcodes and if all the residents decided to come out and vote for a particular candidate in a local election, there is a good chance they could have a decisive impact on the results. A large, impressive foyer provides a grand entrance to the building, recently refurbished and retaining all its 1930s glamour. The architect, George Kay Green, obviously knew how to design imposing flats as he was also responsible for such notable London blocks as Nell Gwynn House - now housing serviced apartments - and Sloane Avenue Mansions in Chelsea.

Original features

The construction of Du Cane Court is typical of many blocks of the era. It is a brick clad, steel framed building with reinforced concrete floors and is seven storeys high. The metal Crittal windows have been retained and many flats still boast crystal panes. Originally every living room and bedroom had an electric heater, cast iron radiators and a heated towel rail – the height of luxury at the time. Flats in the front part of the building also had Bakelite door handles – at the cutting edge of design in 1936. Each flat was provided with a combined electric clock and radio which gave residents the choice of two programmes and allowed the main office to broadcast announcements such as the fact that dinner was being served in the restaurant that was located on the top floor. There was also a licensed private members club in the block which, sadly for those living there now, was converted into flats during the 1950s.

Over the years many of the flats have been modernised, but a large number retain their period features. Although the original clock/ radios are no longer operational some of these have been kept as a charming period piece by some residents.

In the communal areas, the corridors remain exactly as they were when the building was first occupied, with leaded light windows finished in copper above each front door. There are also examples of the original Terrazzo flooring in some of the lift areas finished in the green marble that was in vogue at the time. Many of the block entrances still boast black and white marble decorated with an Italian design and this is also in evidence on the communal staircases throughout the building. The building’s owners Dorrington Belgravia Ltd, have worked hard to preserve the art deco features at Du Cane Court, retaining revolving doors in the foyer and ensuring that any windows that need replacing are substituted for those produced to a specification that exactly matches the old ones. The only real change to the appearance of the block is that all the window frames are now painted white in contrast to the original green.

Celebrity status

A number of celebrities have called Du Cane Court home over the years, including actress Dame Margaret Rutherford, who played Agatha Christie’s amateur sleuth Miss Marple; 1950s and ‘60s comedian Tommy Trinder; and notorious model Christine Keeler. More recently actor Christopher Luscombe and alternative comedian Arthur Smith have made their homes there, as well as actress and MBE Carmen Monroe – perhaps best known to older readers as one of the presenters on Playschool. The block has also been used as a film location, most famously for The Plymouth Express episode of ITVs much-loved series Poirot, where the building features prominently in the opening scenes.

Today the block is exceptionally popular, with flats selling quickly and rented properties providing an excellent return. Prices vary depending on the size of the flat, with one-bedroom flats selling from around £300,000. Service charges for a one-bedroom ground floor flat are around £2400 a year which, in the spirit of old-fashioned fairness, doesn’t include the lift charge levied on flats higher up the building. Communal heating and hot water is supplied to all the flats and the cost included in the service charge.

Flat owners enjoy the benefit of an on-site management team and 24-hour concierge as well as a team of maintenance staff, which includes a plumber to keep the heating and hot water systems running efficiently. A plumber, painter and maintenance man are also available for residents’ use for a fee. There are 78 garages on the estate, mostly privately owned but with some available for rent. The resident’s parking area operates on a first-come-first-served basis but designated bays can also be rented. Bicycle storage is provided both inside and outside the building, which also boasts a service lift to enable residents to move heavy furniture and other bulky items up to their flats and an extensive basement with storage units for rent. These plus-points all add up to making life just that little bit easier for the residents and help give the block a good community feel. Flat owners often comment that Du Cane Court feels a little like living in a hotel – an impression that is enhanced by the communal gardens surrounding the block which are Japanese in design and created by well-known landscape gardener Seyemon Kusumoto.

Representing residents

Someone who is well qualified to talk about living at Du Cane Court is Charles Jones, who has lived in his flat for 23 years and is the chairman of the Residents Association. He is the first to admit that his isn’t the most active RA, due mainly to the fact that most residents have little to complain about or campaign for. The building is managed “very efficiently” by property managers Allsop Residential Investment Management (ARIM) who have a permanent presence on-site and a senior block manager Noella Morton (see below) who is “ruthlessly thorough” and “whose door is always open” according to Charles. There is also a high proportion of buy-to-let at Du Cane Court - the ratio of long leaseholders to renters in the building is 55%:45% - and this means that almost half the residents are not particularly interested in being part of a block community. Despite this, the RA works hard on the residents’ behalf to ensure all service charges are accurate, insurances paid and renewed on time and any issues are dealt with swiftly. Charles has also negotiated discounts for RA members with a number of local shops and restaurants – of which there are many in Balham – and he hopes that this may prove an incentive for more flat owners to pay their £5 a year to join.

Meet the manager

Noella Morton heads up the ARIM management team at Du Cane Court, which also comprises another property manager and an estate manager/head porter. In addition to the ARIM staff there are a total of 14 members of staff employed directly by the landlord in house and who report to Noella, carrying out the daily maintenance and concierge roles.
The main reception at the block is manned 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

Noella’s role is an extensive one, given that the building she manages is so large. She is responsible for coordinating maintenance, annual budgeting on a large scale and overseeing a major works programme that runs on an eight-year rolling programme. She also deals with day-to-day enquiries from residents and prospective leaseholders and tackles the myriad small problems thrown up by a residential block. “It requires real commitment and dedication,” she says, explaining that no day is the same as the next and you need the ability to “effectively juggle all that a day can bring” while retaining a good sense of humour and a sympathetic ear for those residents who come knocking at her door. Sometimes being on site rather than working remotely in an office can mean there are really difficult situations to deal with, she explains, such as elderly residents with dementia, with no family around to help. In one case we had to deal with a resident up to 35 times a day over a period of months”, she says.

Noella is well-placed to manage Du Cane Court. With 25-years’ experience of the industry under her belt she has run a number of multiple blocks of various sizes and both new and old buildings in different parts of the country. A member of the Association of Residential Managing Agents (ARMA) she sits on its council and is chair of the Technical Committee, in 2009 Noella was announced as London Property Manager of the Year in the News on the Block Property Management Awards. This accolade is very special to her as her name was put forward following a number of direct individual nominations made by her residents. If proof were needed of Noella’s commitment to her job, when presenting her award the judges commented that she is “a very hands on property manager who impressed us by her 100% contribution to the building and strong leadership in times of crisis” For flat owners at Du Cane Court, It doesn’t get much better than that.