IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK: From fine silks to white collars

At first glance, Devonshire Square in the city of London appears like many other upscale office and retail campus. Courtyards with an array of office buildings, retail shops and restaurants with residences on the top floors. Like certain others, this entire estate is covered by a high glass roof.

But look intricately, and the rich history of the property comes alive. Indeed, visual cues dot the entire five-acre estate: an 18th century clock case atop the main entrance gate, its stone stairs, iron and wood columns, and antique murals inside the office reception areas.

Formerly a warehouse complex built by The East India Company in the 1700s for storing silks, spices and other traded goods, Devonshire Square has gone through several stages of redevelopment over the decades to become the prime 12-building commercial complex it is today.

In August, news reports revealed the complex, opposite London’s Liverpool Street station, had been put up for sale. Three years after acquiring the property, the New York-based private equity real estate giant, The Blackstone Group, is reportedly looking to sell it for £550 million (€755 million; $849 million), a considerable mark-up over the original purchase price. CBRE and Eastdil Secured have been appointed to handle the sales process.

Over the years, Blackstone has undertaken leasing and other repositioning exercises after acquiring the property from the Middle Eastern sovereign wealth fund Abu Dhabi Investment Authority and the Boston-headquartered private equity real estate firm Rockpoint Group for £410 million in May 2012.

While the property was 99 percent leased when it was put on the market in January 2012, its main anchor tenant, insurance firm Aon, later signed a lease to move out of the property into the Cheesegrater building. The restaurant chain Cinnamon Kitchen, UK supermarket Planet Organic and health club Fitness First were some of the other tenants, but Aon occupied the lion’s share and represented some 45 percent of the property’s £25 million annual rent roll – according to a report published in the Financial Times at the time.

Another owner, another change

Traveling further back in time reveals how, with each new owner, the property has transformed in form and appearance.

It was the East India Company which acquired the land to build its first warehouse in 1768, naming it the Bengal Warehouse since it housed raw silk, textiles and other goods brought from India’s princely state of Bengal. It then went on to buy the neighbouring land to build more storage centres, which were ultimately sold to St Catherine Dock Company, and then to the Port of London Authority in the early 1900s when the East India Company began to lose its lustre. The buildings continued to serve the same purpose; only now they were used to store china ware, perfumes and wine. At the time, the complex was called the Cutlers Gardens Estate, the name of the street on which the warehouses were built.

The overhaul began when the complex was acquired by Standard Life Assurance in 1978 and the London architectural company R Seifert and Partners was appointed to steer the transformation. While the exterior façade of the buildings was kept unaltered, the interiors were radically remodelled.

Further changes ensued in 2006 when Boston-based fund manager Rockpoint took over the ownership, reportedly for £410 million in 2006, and immediately sold a 25 percent stake to ADIA. Offices and retail shops were added in the courtyards. The glass roof was installed, landscape changed and some of the streets pedestrianised. Website called londonunveiled explains how each of the warehouse buildings was redeveloped with a separate theme linking it to the East India Company’s past. The lobby areas of some buildings, for instance, were adorned with murals of silks, teas and feathers. Even one of the bars inside the complex is said to have its own unique past. The Magpie used to serve as one of the city’s few 24/7 ambulance stations in the 20th century.

With Devonshire Square once again on the cusp of changing hands, onlookers will soon find out whether this historical property undergoes yet another makeover.