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Philip Bobbitt on life in Albany
by William Arthurs
Philip C. Bobbitt, historian, political theorist, and lawyer, is Professor of Jurisprudence at Columbia Law School in Manhattan. He has also been a fellow of Nuffield College Oxford, and King's College London. He has held government posts during every US administration, Republican and Democrat, from that of his uncle, Lyndon B. Johnson, to Bill Clinton. He participated in the drafting of the CIA's Charter and was senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council. His most recent book is the substantial work of political philosophy Terror & Consent, published in 2008 by Penguin Books. William Arthurs met Professor Bobbitt at his apartment at Albany just before Christmas.
A bright, clear, bitterly cold day in London in the run-up to Christmas. I have a coffee at the club, then cross Piccadilly to Albany. I am greeted by the porter. "You're expected, of course?" In the main hall I note the busts of founders and early residents, then in the arcade to the north, the plaques commemorating former residents. Thinking of Emily Cole's lecture, it occurs to me that if any residential location in London has contained a notable concentration of people (mostly men) of distinction, power and influence for the past 200 years, it is here. But of course, unlike blue plaques, these plaques are not for the benefit of the public, since this is not a public place: it is a place of privacy for the residents and, surprising for somewhere so close to the traffic of Piccadilly and Regent Street, a quiet haven. The arrangement at the rear of the mansion ("Albany House", the former Melbourne House, Sir William Chambers, 1771-4) is a Georgian interpretation (Henry Holland, 1802-3) of the residential community of the Oxbridge college or maybe the Inn of Court: a terrace on either side of the walkway, with residents' sets of rooms (numbered) off staircases (lettered). I am thus expecting, entirely wrongly as it turns out, springy or sagging stair-treads and floorboards to announce my arrival.
I find the staircase I am looking for and am confronted by a steep flight of stone stairs. Several more flights of stairs are interspersed with landings. Clearly the residents on higher floors have excellent fitness levels. Finally I arrive at a black door with a decorative brass in the shape of an American eagle, bearing the name BOBBITT. I ring the bell. Fifteen seconds of absolute silence. Has he forgotten? Suddenly the door opens and I am greeted by an immaculately-dressed man in his early 60s. "Come in! Let me take your coat. Would you like a coffee? or maybe a glass of champagne?" Looking through the window, down at neighbouring roofs and chimney stacks, I feel as though I have earned the latter.
Professor Bobbitt joins me in the sitting room, which is elegantly proportioned, with a high ceiling, and austerely furnished with gentleman's club-type furniture including a leather sofa, prints of military historical subjects, busts of the Founding Fathers. I notice on a side table photographs of his parents: and one of his uncle, LBJ. The windows have blinds rather than curtains. It resembles a tidier version of Sherlock Holmes's sitting room in the Basil Rathbone films. "Do you mind if I smoke?" he asks, producing and lighting a Montecristo No. 2. "Would you like to have one?" Evidently Professor Bobbitt has noticed that I am a smoker from the way that I check my pockets as I sit down. I decide to take a raincheck on the cigar, though I am greatly tempted. "What do you know about Albany? Let me tell you something of the history." The pamphlet produced by the Trustees of Albany in 2003 (Albany's 200th anniversary) which he shows me contains an offprint of an excellent Country Life article by David Watkin, also a resident of Albany (and a contributor to this issue of the London Society Journal), summarising the history of the buildings, with a selection of photographs of the common parts (which I myself had not sought permission to photograph) and of what Professor Bobbitt refers to as the "chintz decor" in other "sets": "curtains and soft furnishings... however, people who visit me say you can tell a man lives here – and I rather doubt they mean that as a compliment."
I am interested in the legal structure of Albany. It has been described as the first purpose-built apartments in this country. How is it owned and managed? Professor Bobbitt explains that there is no landlord (freeholder) from whom the sets of rooms are leased: all are held as individual freeholds, which implies that, as apartments, they are "flying freeholds". The owners of the freeholds are known as "Proprietors". About half are owned by the Cambridge college Peterhouse and are sub-let. Proprietors' rights and obligations to one another are agreed via a covenant recorded at the Land Registry, to which all proprietors subscribe, while ceding to a smaller elected group of Trustees control over the management of the property as a whole and the maintenance of its common parts. Professor Bobbitt, who owns an apartment in Manhattan as well as a house in Austin, Texas, suggests that getting the residents of a conventional apartment block in shared ownership to agree on a course of action is like herding cats. "Here we have a resident secretary [managing agent for the Trustees], while the Trustees have ultimate control. I've never heard them utter a sharp word, but I think they keep the rest of us pretty much in line!" The whole structure is Grade I listed.
Where did Professor Bobbitt live before? "I moved here about seven or eight years ago. I used to live in a lovely apartment in Onslow Gardens, with a 40 foot terrace overlooking gardens. I was very happy there."
The LCC Bomb Damage Map (no. 61) indicates that Albany was hit during the War. Looking out of the window, Professor Bobbitt points to the building opposite. "You see the change in the colour of the brickwork? We suffered a direct hit. This building we are in now was destroyed down to the first floor and was rebuilt as an exact replica after the war. The floor is concrete under these floorboards, so it's perfectly quiet."
"So you have the best of all worlds?"
"That's right: Georgian proportions, and modern building standards!"
"So how does one get to live here?" I had noted on the Land Register that the freehold of one of the apartments was sold through Savills in 2008 for £1.8M. "Were I a rich man, could I just say, I want one of those, and plonk down my money?"
Professor Bobbitt draws my attention to the Albany pamphlet: "All freeholders agreed in 1803 (and have continued to agree) that sets might only be sold or leased with the approval of the Trustees." (p. 7)
It is an interesting question why the excellent arrangements governing this property and its inhabitants have continued for 200 years but not been replicated elsewhere. The founders "created something unique, physically, legally and socially, governed and financed in a way then unknown, and, even today, quite different from the manner in which blocks of flats and condominiums are managed." (Albany, p. 7) As with other long-lived institutions, the original spirit is periodically refreshed through the somewhat mysterious operation of a corporate personality distinct from those of the individual members, and which has inspired fascination on the part of, for example, artists like Keith Coventry as well as historians.
Professor Bobbitt shows me the kitchen he has designed to look like a bar (with evidence of cookery neatly concealed) – an American touch – and then takes me upstairs to see the view southwards toward the Houses of Parliament – "You see the charming juxtaposition on the skyline?" – as he points out he spire of St James's Piccadilly and Big Ben above the rooftops.
What do the local amenities consist of? "Well, of course there's Fortnums, the loveliest grocer in the world, but not too far away there's a Sainsbury's, a Marks & Spencers, but my tastes are pretty simple – if I can get a steak, or some lamb chops, I'm content. For the things that you would want, there's Jermyn street, you could get your haircut there, booksellers up and down there, and the London Library in St James's square. I order my wine online, so I don't go to the wine merchants in Mayfair. As for tobacco, there's Davidoff's just round the corner, and Lewis's. For men, that's pretty much all you need. I was living with a lovely woman here, but I think the cliche about Paris being a woman's city is probably true. It caters more to their tastes than Jermyn Street does, or St James's..."
We spend some time discussing the Iran situation. Compared to the bellicose, vicious partisanship now customary in Washington, Professor Bobbitt's judicious consideration of the opportunities and drawbacks of various courses of action to deal with rogue states, as set out in his most recent book and indeed in his conversation, seems to date from another era, one of unironic patriotism. But just as our conversation turns to the superpowers' spheres of influence in the Middle East, Professor Bobbitt remembers he has an appointment with his UK publishers, Penguin Books (which, coincidentally, was launched by Sir Allen Lane from a nearby set of rooms in Albany, where he had previously worked for his uncle John Lane's publishing house, the Bodley Head), and he has to go.
But I have a raincheck on the cigar!
© William Arthurs 2010
Photograph: North entrance to Albany (William Arthurs)
Photograph: Philip Bobbitt (William Arthurs)
Albany House (south entrance) in Regency times: cartoon by Harry Furniss (1854-1925)
Albany House (north entrance) in Regency times: cartoon by Harry Furniss (1854-1925)
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