Single-minded, optimistic and determined is how Spanish-born Helena Garcia is characterised by her friends, and it’s a description that certainly fits the way she went about securing this charming Victorian home for herself and husband William.
Eight years ago, when Helena noticed the house was up for auction, she knew she couldn’t afford to buy it. The trouble was, she’d fallen in love with the characterful red-brick villa with its open view of the park, not far from the centre of Leeds.
‘So I asked around to see if anyone would invest in it with me as student accommodation,’ she says. ‘Luckily, my friend Max and his mother agreed that it had investment potential and I went along to the auction and put in the winning bid.’
Owners: Helena Garcia, who runs an online jewellery and accessories business, and William Briggs, who is a product manager
Property: A red-brick property in Leeds, built in 1814 as a Sunday school for a convent
Essential repairs: The property had been split into bedsits and had to be restored back into one home. Gutters, windowsills and rotten floors had to be replaced
Layout: The home now has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, an attic workroom and a living room
‘We hadn’t realised what a dreadful state the house was in. Everywhere was damp. Tatty 1950s wallpaper was peeling off every wall, many of the old floorboards were rotten, windowsills were crumbling and the gutters all needed realigning.’
Undaunted, Helena systematically worked through the property, painting the walls magnolia, installing a basic Ikea kitchen and preparing the house for its first group of students. All the while, however, she harboured a desire to make it a home for herself and William one day. ‘But I knew I was going to have to be patient and wait until I could afford to buy Max’s share,’ she says.
It took four years of student lettings before the couple finally owned the whole place and relocated from their small two-bedroom property nearby. They moved into the villa in June 2010, and at last Helena restored it into a home.
The inspiration for the spare room came from a trip to Versailles.The Louis XVI-style bed was an Ebay purchase
Divided into separate bedsits, the interior was disjointed and Helena felt it needed a harmonious theme to make it whole again. She wanted to keep the décor true to the building’s Victorian origins and was intrigued to learn that the property had started life as a Sunday school for a nearby convent.
‘To look at it now, it’s quite difficult to imagine the house ever being used for that purpose,’ says Helena. ‘But in the cellar there are still the original lines of hooks for the children’s coats.’
Thankfully, she’d restored major structural work before the students moved in, so the roof, gutters and fabric of the building were sound, and damp was no longer an issue. However, as she ripped up the carpets, she discovered that many of the floorboards needed replacing, which was a painstaking task. In the hallway, there was a simple fix: to lay reproduction Victorian-style tiles, which look as if they’ve always been there.
The glass-fronted cabinet and open-shelved dresser were holiday bargains, picked up in Provence
Helena also papered over the student-friendly magnolia walls. For the hall and landing, she found the perfect cameo design, but there was a slight logistical problem: it was only available in the United States. True to form, she wasn’t going to give up on the perfect wallpaper, so had it delivered to a friend’s address in New York then patiently waited for her next visit and brought the eight rolls home in her luggage.
‘My friends in the States must think I’m a pest because I’m always asking them to bring things over, but there’s a much bigger choice of Victorian-style furnishings on American websites.’
For the kitchen, Helena chose a classic floral print Cath Kidston wallpaper, and is also gradually replacing the basic Ikea units with freestanding furniture, as she explains: ‘We were on holiday in France when we found the glass-fronted cupboard and a beautiful Provençal dresser, which cost me just £150. It would have cost me £800 or more if I’d bought it over here.’
They now look the part filled with antique china and old apothecaries’ artefacts. In the evenings, a chandelier casts soft light over the old oak dining table, which Helena found in Leeds’ famous Swiss Cottage antiques centre. Chapel chairs give a nod to the home’s ecclesiastical past, while a collection of vintage advertising signs makes an interesting display.
The house still has many of its original features, including this fireplace, which provides the perfect backdrop for Helena’s collections
The living room
A fortunate discovery during the renovation set the decorating theme for the living room. As the woodburner was being installed, Helena found out that a drab brown-painted mantelpiece was in fact made of high-quality marble, and so set about removing three layers of thick paint.
The room has a more masculine feel than the rest of the house, with its leather Chesterfield-style sofa and high-backed armchair. Dark stained library-style shelves, complete with a ladder, add to the gentlemen’s club feel. However, she couldn’t resist including a few feminine touches: a soft shade of white on the walls, a pink rug and fringed lamp.
Helena chose a dark, Gothic-inspired look for the bathroom, and hired a plumber to adapt an original Victorian washstand to fit a basin from B&Q. The striking black and white striped wallpaper came from Wallpaper Direct, and the floor and wall tiles are from Walls & Floors
For the bathroom, it took a bit of shopping around before Helena was happy with the look. ‘I wanted a darker space,’ she explains, ‘and I’ve always preferred brass fittings to chrome, but they are so hard to find. I found the roll-top bath on Ebay and it took me eight months to decide on the tiles, but I’m really pleased with them now.’
Helena likes collecting old kitchen equipment and found this coffee grinder in a local antiques centre
Upstairs, the master bedroom is a calm space, with white walls and a cast-iron bed from Laura Ashley, dressed with cushions collected by Helena over the years. The décor in the spare bedroom was inspired by a trip to Versailles. ‘You have to have fun with your house. There are no rules,’ she says. The magnificent Louis XVI-style bed was an Ebay find, while antique-print wallpaper and carefully grouped portraits and cameos, together with grand mirrors, give an opulent feel.
In a small bedroom at the top of the house is one of Helena’s treasures: a bedspread that once belonged to her great-grandmother. With a heavenly blue headboard painted with swags and garlands, and a romantic voile coronet, it’s a restful sanctuary. ‘My workroom is just on the other side of the landing and if ever I’m feeling stressed or tired, I come in here for a few minutes’ break, and I soon feel better,’ she says.
The bright, spacious room at the top of the house is used as a workroom. The 19th-century mahogany filing chest was originally from a bank and came in three parts. Helena uses it to store tissue and packaging materials for her business
The workroom Helena is referring to is the place where she masterminds her accessories business. With dormer windows overlooking the city, the room makes an inspiring space to work. In one corner is a Victorian corset mannequin.
‘I’d had my eye on it for a while at the Swiss Cottage antiques centre and eventually decided to buy it,’ she says. ‘The wife of the owner was out at the time and when she came back, she was annoyed that it had sold because it was just for display. But we’ve since become friends and she always teases me about how I pinched her favourite mannequin!’
Then again, Helena had set her heart on it, just as she had with her home, and, as her friends know, she finds a way of making things happen.
Get the look
Get the look of Helena and William’s eclectic French-style living room
This No 6 1913 Une Rose Parmi Les Roses print with a dark canvas rim, H50xW40cm, £60 at John Lewis, is from Parisian fashion journal Gazette du Bon Ton, which began in 1912.
Zoe Darlington’s beautiful lamps are ideal for a period home. This Celeste design, £795, is made from vintage fabric panels sewn to a rare scoop frame with a turned oak base.
Oscar & Eve’s grey lambswool throw, £105, is super-soft and warm, and big enough to cover a double bed.
This cotton and wool blend Malmaison rug in Amethyst, W120xL180cm, is £200 at Laura Ashley. Four additional colourways are available.
The Lolanthe unglazed ceramic urn, H49.5xDia.44cm, £129 from Artisanti, has a handled bowl and pillar base for a classical look.
With their large heads, mophead hydrangeas are often chosen for the garden. Oka’s faux bunch, £74, can be enjoyed all year.
The Chesterfied Cairness sofa, shown in hand-antiqued leather, is £2,195 for a midi design, H71xW193xD97cm, at Darlings of Chelsea.
Chest of drawers
The Lampina French chest features distressed paintwork, antique brass detailing and decorative leaf handles, H88xW118xD49cm, priced £489 from Out There Interiors.
Pip Studio’s porcelain Blue Rose teapot, £34.99 at Daisy Park, features a rose print set off by a gold rim and rose handle.
Featured image: Library-style shelving adds to the gentlemen’s club feel. The chandelier is from Newark Antiques Centre