The most beautiful building in the Western world will soon appear in one of the most unlikely of places – Stratford.
Well that’s the vision of one man, Harry Handelsman, and based on his past form you’d be foolish to bet against him.
The CEO of Manhattan Loft Corporation is also the man behind the uber-trendy Chiltern Firehouse and the St Pancras Hotel, both projects that succeeded despite making little commercial sense at the time.
Harry at the launch of Manhattan Loft Gardens
“What I do are acts of love”, he says. “It’s not how much money I will make but what kind of contribution I can make or how I can change people’s aspirations – or just to create things that don’t exist yet.”
Handelsman’s latest project is the Manhattan Loft Gardens, an apartment tower and hotel but one with a touch more vision than the countless that already dot the capital’s skyline.
Initially he tasked the architect behind the project with the unenviable task of creating the most beautiful building in the world but scaled it back when he realised just what they’d be up against in the Middle East and Asia.
One of the remarkable gardens in the planned Manhattan Loft Gardens
“Beauty is a personal thing and it’s incredibly subjective. People would say ‘well yours doesn’t look like a sailing boat or like a rocket or like a moon or like a sun’.
“But isn’t that amazing architecture?,” he says, pointing to a scale model of the tower.
Handelsman’s previous projects deservedly gained him a reputation as something of a maverick developer who could turn unloved buildings in neglected areas of London into some of the most desirable properties in town.
The one he is most proud of is the St Pancras Hotel, a formidable restoration that took a heavy toll both emotionally and financially.
“It was misery but it was misery in terms of not knowing that what I’m going to set myself to do I’ll ever be able to afford able to deliver.
“I felt that it wasn’t just another development. What Gilbert Scott created is an absolute masterpiece and not just because it’s a beautiful building, it’s all the attention and care that went into it and I wasn’t even aware of.
Despite having to plough in a significant amount of his own money into the project, Handelsman is clear that it was worth it.
The St Pancras Hotel
He says: “Seldom can people at large take ownership of a Grade 1 listed building of the stature of St Pancras but by the virtue of it being a hotel, you walk in and you spend a day you spend a week and it’s yours.
“Yes you’re renting but I find that is quite an emotional thing that makes me proud. The feel good factor about a hotel is that you’re making it your own.
“I feel to a certain extent that I offer opportunities.”
The tower is due to be completed in 2016
Less fraught was the Chiltern Firehouse, currently frequented by everyone from Kylie to Harry Styles and the place to be seen tumbling out of at 2am.
It can be argued the venue has given Marylebone a new lease of life (although sometimes to the chagrin or local residents) and Handelsman clearly gets a kick out of it.
He says: “Marylebone was never a destination. When the old high street was cool it was kind of fun, it’s still a nice high street but the differentiation from other high streets wasn’t that much.
“But creating the Firehouse changed the perception of the area.”
Both developments have had a remarkable effect on the areas in which they were developed, spurring regeneration, particularly in St Pancras, prompting some to ask if he is driven by some sort of sense of altruism.
He says: “It’s not so much a sense of altruism. My motivation is almost a sense of obligation. If someone buys from me and is unhappy because I didn’t pay enough attention then I think I’ve failed.”
Despite the success, in the public eye at least, his partner on the project, André Balazs, appears to be grabbing the limelight, not that Handelsman seems to mind.
“I think Andre is the person that is so enamoured with coverage. Yes I want recognition and my friends know of my involvement.
“If people at large don’t know it and Andre can thrive on it then I’m delighted for him.”
The exclusivity of the Firehouse appears at odds with the ‘temporary ownership’ idea with which he describes St Pancras, a fact further bolstered by a notoriously long waiting list – unless you’re an A-lister.
So how does he square the apparently opposing ideals of exclusivity and public-at-large ownership?
He says: “The Firehouse is accessible but you’re right it is popular and you have to book in advance.
“That’s just the nature of the game. Success obviously breeds inherent issues but I doubt very much if anybody could come to the Firehouse by giving 24 hours notice that it would be as successful as it is.
“The last time I went there was Monday night. I do go there regularly. I do enjoy it.”
Ah, but when did he book?
“When I walked in. But I was lucky, it could have been that there was no table available.”
Surely they couldn’t turn him away?
“Why not? What I don’t want to do is for other people not to get a table because I arrived, I would disapprove of that. But if I’m lucky and there’s a cancellation…”
We move on.
German-born Handelsman has invested much in London, surprising most because it is not his hometown or even his home country.
“I chose London almost by accident, I came here because I was leaving Canada, and my father who lived in Belgium died so I spent some time with my mother. I did a bit of real estate in NY and Canada and a friend of mine said why don’t you take a look at London?
“This was the early 80s and there was a bit of a recession in Europe. I didn’t know London at all but I thought it had a bit of raw beauty, the beauty was a bit dilapidated, especially the areas I looked at initially.
“I saw potential. I think things are possible on London. You can experiment with something new and that’s what makes a city impressive.”
Handelsman lives in Bayswater with his partner, Elizabeth and 13-year-old daughter, Allegra, who also doubles as his technology tutor as he’s “terrible with gadgets”.
Despite wealth and understated celebrity, he still enjoys the simple things.
“It’s friends and work that make me happy. And my daughter. I like to go out to drink, to eat. I like to relax at home and I like to read,” he says.
“The great thing about London is if you don’t want to be bored you just walk somewhere. The Groucho Club for instance – I didn’t have to meet anyone but by virtue of going their you see friends that you don’t mind hanging out.
Being a well-connected man has other advantages for a man that describes himself as a “rapid shopper”.
“I’m fortunate that a bunch of friends of mine are tailors. At the end of the day, if you don’t have the looks you might as well have the clothes.
“For suits I go to Spencer Hart and Ozwald Boateng and for the rest I’m quite sporadic. Trunk is quite a nice shop, they have beautiful things. I will go to Prada or Gucci if there’s something I like but I’m not going to look at the name.
Handelsman comes across as a very humble man considering his wealth an influence and on the face of it at least, one who cares beyond simply making a return on an investment.
He says: “I’m prepared to go that extra mile introduce something that will change the landscape and how people live, that’s a greater benefit than just having another tower in London which I’m not sure London necessarily needs.”