High Hopes
Wallpaper|July 2017

As the Manhattan Loft Corporation celebrates 25 years, its founder Harry Handelsman plots elevated living in post-Olympics east London

Emma O'Kelly

Loft living once meant colonising an industrial space in a desolate part of town, filling it with statement furniture and learning to love the screech of goods trains as a non-stop backing track. That’s how Harry Handelsman, an unusually high-profile property developer and founder of the Manhattan Loft Corporation, remembers it anyway. Twenty-five years ago, he was living in Bankside, on the wrong side of the Thames, with dodgy pubs and greasy spoons for company. ‘At that time, London was in deep recession. The whole city was up for sale,’ he recalls. Handelsman, then in his early forties, had returned from a stint in Manhattan, where he was working in finance and was starting to dabble in property, ‘but nothing was selling’. In 1992, he had a light-bulb moment. He bought a building in a then similarly desolate Clerkenwell for £435,000 and turned it into the sort of lofts he had seen in New York. Artists, film producers, photographers and pop stars moved in, as Handelsman hoped, and the newly formed Manhattan Loft Corporation (MLC) became synonymous with a cool new way of living. 

Since then, the loft proposition has been so exploited that it has come to mean anything from a first-floor shoe-box to a new-build with exposed bricks and no views. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, though, and of his copycats Handelsman says: ‘I’m happy that loft living is more readily available. My prime motivation is always to add things that don’t exist and have others follow my footsteps, as long as they do it with care and attention.’

After creating loft developments all over London, from Chelsea to Canary Wharf, Fitzrovia to Fulham, came Handelsman’s painstaking transformation of the former Midland Grand Hotel, a Gothic Revival landmark, into the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, which opened in 2011. Then in 2014, he collaborated with hotelier André Balazs to create perennial party spot the Chiltern Firehouse. Handelsman has thrown a regenerative lifeline to one overlooked, unloved neighbourhood after another and excitement and attention now follow his every professional move. His current project – the creation of a 42-storey, £300m apartment and hotel complex in Stratford, east London – is his most ambitious yet.

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