Doing Clerkenwell Justice

Say hello to the new Old Sessions House. Later this year, our cool corner of London will have a restaurant, food market and roof terrace in one of EC1’s grandest and most historic buildings. Andre Paine gets a private tour from one of the Swedish property developer brothers behind the scheme.

FOR 140 years, the Middlesex Sessions House was a courthouse with a reputation for severe justice. It closed its doors a century ago, but the Clerkenwell landmark is set to be a public building once again with a restaurant, food market and possibly a private members’ club. The court’s former dungeon will become EC1’s latest foodie destination.

“This is actually what it looked like in the Georgian era,” says Swedish property developer Ted Grebelius as he gives The Post a guided tour of the main courtroom, restored after decades as drab offices. Dominated by a grand central dome modelled after the Pantheon in Rome, it’s a magnificent space that shows off the original stone columns, glass screen, railings and hallway lanterns.

“The biggest thing for us was to try and get this courtroom back,” says Grebelius, a laidback, longhaired Scandinavian who’s barely in his thirties. Restored with guidance by experts, including former Islington conservation officer Alec Forshaw, the refurbishment hints at the building’s heyday between 1782 and 1920. They’re keeping the Old Sessions House name too.

While the imposing Portland stone façade is a familiar sight, The Post is getting a rare glimpse of the Grade II-listed Sessions House’s interior. Since the court closed, it’s been in private hands: HQ for the Avery weighing machine manufacturers and, more recently, a Masonic centre.

Donning a protective dust mask and hard hat, we’re led through as builders work on the 18,000 square feet site. The building first caught the attention of Ted and older brother Oliver Grebelius in 2013, when they were developing a Victorian warehouse at 109 Farringdon Road (the brothers’ father is venture capitalist Lennart Grebelius).

“We are mainly focused in Clerkenwell, I love it here,” says Ted Grebelius. “It’s an area with a lot of history, a lot of beautiful buildings and also a lot of commercial strength.”

The Sessions House was acquired for £13.5 million by Satila Studios. Grebelius says they are focused on recreating the character of the building and finding the right tenants. On the ground floor, Victorian and Georgian brickwork has been restored in the dungeon area, whichis set to become a food market with street-level entrances. “We want people to come here to socialise,” he adds. “It’s the perfect meeting place for the area.”

The public will also be able to visit the top-floor restaurant and wine bar, the Judges’ Dining Room, managed in consultation with Michelin- starred Swedish chef Ulf Wagner. “The judges used to have a wine club and dining room here,” says Grebelius. “Back then it was private, but we want to make it publicly accessible like a normal restaurant.”

You can even imbibe like a Victorian magistrate as the brothers have “found some interesting records of what wine the judges used to drink,” which will influence their 65-seat restaurant’s wine list. And there will be al fresco dining on the roof terrace with an outdoor fireplace for the British weather. “From above you will be able to see the chefs working through that skylight and you will also be able to see down into the dome,” he points out. The views up here are pretty good too.

Custom-made fireplaces, touches of antique brass and bronze and elegant chandeliers have been added during the multi-million pound renovation. The brothers have also installed Georgian-style lighting with gas lanterns on the building’s exterior. Where possible, original features have been restored with the help of an architectural paint researcher, glass conservation expert and a stone specialist to repair pillars, walls and stairs. “We’re bringing back a lot of the architecture and people can actually access and see it without it being a museum,” says Grebelius.

The main courtroom was designed as a space for a private members’ club or a “dynamic headquarters”, which remains to be confirmed. The brothers themselves will have an office on the top floor. It is being billed as an “all-day destination”, but in June Islington councillors on the Planning committee rejected a proposal to extend the agreed opening hours for the restaurant to 12.30am at weekends. The council said more than 130 local residents objected that late opening would cause a disturbance.

“The biggest challenge has been to try and get what we think are reasonable opening hours,” says Grebelius. “We’re not looking to do anything that would disturb people.” Despite the setbacks, the brothers’ bold vision is nearing completion. One of Clerkenwell’s major historic public buildings will soon be in session once again.