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A former municipal library had such high ceilings that its owner had to raise the floors and lower the windows to see the view outside. Alice Black reports
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The Independent Online

If anywhere in London conjures up the term "gentrification", it's got to be Battersea. The area has, over the past 20 years, undergone a remarkable transformation, from a shabby industrial sprawl into one of the capital's most desirable areas, at the heart of which is Battersea Village - or at least that's what the estate agents call it. A web of historic back streets converges at Battersea Square, now home to a well-heeled set of restaurants and bars.

If anywhere in London conjures up the term "gentrification", it's got to be Battersea. The area has, over the past 20 years, undergone a remarkable transformation, from a shabby industrial sprawl into one of the capital's most desirable areas, at the heart of which is Battersea Village - or at least that's what the estate agents call it. A web of historic back streets converges at Battersea Square, now home to a well-heeled set of restaurants and bars.

Unlike many other areas of south-west London characterised by endless unremarkable terraces, Battersea is home to a genuine mix of architectural styles, from the elegant period mansion blocks to Sir Norman Foster's ground-breaking Albion Riverside development, which was finished last year.

Matthew Arnold, however, was not a fan. He wrote to his wife in 1852: "Battersea, so far off, the roads so execrable, and the rain so incessant." Fast-forward 150 years or so. The roads are still pretty bad, thanks to traffic problems, and the area's lack of a Tube makes it less accessible than other areas which are further away. But residents don't mind a bit. They love the fact that you can take a short walk over the bridge to the King's Road in Chelsea, or a quiet stroll in Battersea Park. Nearby, Clapham Junction mainline station is impeccably well-connected (like many of the area's residents), with direct links to Waterloo, Victoria, Gatwick and the south coast, and there are plenty of bus routes up to town, which is only three miles away.

A couple of minutes away from Battersea Square is the distinguished early 20th century building The Old Library - formerly Battersea Municipal Library - on Battersea High Street, a development of seven luxury apartments. It was converted into apartments in 1998 by Sapcote, a company responsible for the development of many schools and municipal buildings from the past.

Seven years ago, Bibi Bach and her family bought one of the shell apartments and began what would be a £500,000 refit. Consisting of four outer walls encompassing 3,500sq ft of floor space and a magnificent 30ft high barrelled ceiling, the blank canvas of the interior space filled Bach - who as a photographer possesses a sophisticated spatial sense - with inspiration. The end result is an undoubtedly photogenic home with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a reception room with full-height ceilings, a 30ft kitchen and dining room, and a basement.

As a former library, the building's interior was illuminated by windows which were unusually high. Bach decided to raise the floors by three feet and some of the windows had to be lowered to provide a view of the outside. Crucially, though, the impressive ceiling height allowed for the installation of a mezzanine level, incorporating two bedrooms and one of the two bathrooms, although the original ceiling height has been kept in the reception room, intensifying the sense of space.

Throughout the apartment, Rhodesian teak planks were laid to form a durable floor covering with the kind of glowing patina reserved for products of the highest quality. The reception room is dominated by iron balustrades which sweep up the staircase and around the upper gallery. With a vision of the look that she wanted to achieve, Bach was able to identify a similar set of railings, featured in a 1930s war office building, in the architecture section of her local library, and had the railings made by a blacksmith in the East End.

"It was a vision straight out of my childhood. I was brought up in a house with a sweeping staircase and gallery to my father's bedroom, and I've tried to replicate it here," says Bach.

In the kitchen, the cupboard doors are clad in a polished mild blue steel with a textured surface of sweeping circles, which adds extra depth to the surface. The worktops have been constructed from the same Rhodesian teak as the floorboards. The lower portion of the walls in the kitchen had originally been panelled in wood, which Bach carefully removed so that she could expose the pale, putty-coloured brick beneath. Partition walls were added to this area, built from carefully matched reclaimed brick and incorporating blind archways to reflect the semi-circular windows. The wooden parquet floor is painted in a dramatic, deep glossy red. "I had originally gone for black," admits Bach, "but it was overbearing and ultimately quite depressing."

In the main bedroom, the ceiling swoops down towards the crescent-shaped windows, and the relative height of the bed leads, says Bach, "to the feeling that you're flying". Here the cupboard doors are covered with stretched silk over a wooden frame. The beautiful en-suite bathroom features built-in cupboards, too, with metal edging, built by the same blacksmith responsible for the railings.

Now Bach has decided to sell up. "It's been lovely living here," she says. "I will miss the sheer volume of the apartment. The design has worked well ergonomically; the feeling of space makes it feel open-plan, but with the advantage of privacy when it's required."

The Old Library is for sale at £1.55m through Douglas and Gordon (020-7720 8077)

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