Could clues to Harvard Square’s future be found in a stunning new English hotel?
HAMPSHIRE, England — If you have the good fortune to stay at Heckfield Place, the recently opened 18th-century Georgian manor-turned-hotel that sits on 438 acres in the British countryside, you’ll hear a common theme when you ask the staff about the hotel’s exquisite details.
Inquire about the eclectic British art throughout the 45-room hotel and you’ll learn that it comes from the private collection of Boston billionaire Gerald Chan. The restored British cottage garden behind the hotel? Its design was overseen by Chan. The ambitious schedule of activities, which includes everything from nature walks and estate tours to movies in a posh 67-seat underground theater? Yes, the staff will tell you that concept came from Chan as well.
If it were possible to dust for creative fingerprints at Heckfield Place, it seems that Chan’s would be everywhere.
“I personally approved all the decisions,” Chan said. “No designer did anything there without my approval, and many designers have been axed by me, or, you know, their ideas have been axed.”
Since 2009, Heckfield Place has been a passion project for Chan and it may offer clues for what’s to come locally. The 68-year-old Hong Kong-born cofounder of the private equity firm Morningside Group, who has been described in various publications as elusive and mysterious, is probably best known in the Boston area for his family’s donation of $350 million to the Harvard School of Public Health and for buying more than $100 million in properties in and around Harvard Square. He’s purchased large swaths of property in Dorchester’s Savin Hill, as well. Many have wondered what Chan will make of these locations, and when. If Heckfield Place is any indicator, the answer won’t be clear for some time, but it will be worth the wait.
Because the real estate tycoon can now officially add hotelier to his many titles, he was ready to talk about his vision and Heckfield Place in depth on a recent Saturday morning at a table in Winthrop Park in Harvard Square. Just don’t ask how much he paid for the country hotel or its painstaking restoration.
“Let’s get the rules straight,” he said firmly. “No money talk.”
If the name Heckfield Place sounds familiar, it could be because the luxe property was in the news earlier this year when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle took a babymoon at the hotel before the birth of their first child, Archie. Their stay in the $12,500-a-night Long Room of the hotel made for eye-catching tabloid headlines. Room prices at Heckfield start at about $440 a night.
“I’m shocked that story went all over the world,” Chan said over coffee. “The world is bigger; there are more important things.”
Royals aside, Heckfield Place was one of the most anticipated British hotel unveilings in years. When it opened last September, travel writers couldn’t skim thesauruses fast enough to come up with glowing adjectives to describe it. It’s easy to see why. The hotel is a vision of casual elegance. Chan has clearly spared no expense — perhaps that’s why he’s not keen to talk about the money — to create an elevated experience for guests. Heckfield is just an hour outside of London, but it feels like a secluded world unto itself.
When I stayed there this spring, I approached Heckfield via an inconspicuous gatehouse, from which my arrival was communicated to reception staff. The 1790 grand brick manor, which has been so carefully restored that it looks almost new, revealed itself as I drove down the gravel road. A trio of uniformed staff members greeted me “Downton Abbey”-style. A valet parked my car, and a bellhop took my luggage. A third member of the staff offered me a drink. This was all before I stepped foot inside. (Chan and his staff were unaware that a Globe writer was staying at the hotel at the time of my visit.)
While a Heckfield welcome may sound pretentious on paper, it’s not. The staff is young and smiling. The loose-fitting, cotton uniforms with high-water trousers are casually cool. The hotel is massive and could be seen as imposing, but the interior is surprisingly intimate. The color palate is a calming mix of muted grays, greens, and blues, while the materials are rough and organic, including bare brick, lime plaster walls, and natural timber floors.
“I think it was very important for this project that I could realize the sensibilities of the English countryside and yet not be enslaved to tradition,” he said. “So how do you innovate in a way that is respectful of tradition? Taking the best of history and merging it with modernity. We can’t just go back and live in a surrounding that’s 200 years old, right?”
The level of thought that Chan put into Heckfield Place could explain why it took a nearly a decade to complete. He quickly ticks off several details that he sought out in the creation of the hotel in his attempt to adhere to “the whole Britishness of the thing.”
The stone floor in the room where Harry and Meghan stayed comes from a quarry in Lancashire in the northern part of England. Chan salvaged the cobblestones in Heckfield’s courtyard from a section of Liverpool that had been torn up. The black stone floor in one of the hotel’s two restaurants comes from Wales. It’s as if Chan is a chef describing the ingredients he used to create a quintessentially British entree.
But please, don’t tell him the end result is pretty.
“I would be rather offended if somebody said, ‘Oh heck, your place is pretty.’ To me, someone who uses that word betrays his own superficiality,” he said.
Although Chan grew up in a real estate family, he opted to study science, earning two advanced degrees at Harvard. After he finished his formal education, he joined the family real estate business and began studying history and the humanities, two areas that were helpful in the hotel restoration.
“Part of this, you may say, is a grounding in culture,” he said. “One has to be rooted in what humanity has come through.”
But when the conversation drifts toward the deeply esoteric, Chan stops to set the record straight.
“People assume that I’m just high-minded and a person cloistered in this ivory tower and looking down on the world,” he said. “That is anything but the truth.”
• • •
Chan never set out to own a hotel.
Heckfield Place was built in 1790 by wealthy Londoner John Lefevre. It was passed down to his daughter Helena, who married Whig politician Charles Shaw. It remained in the Shaw-Lefevre family for more than 100 years. But in an oft-repeated scenario in England, the demise of the aristocracy and steep inheritance taxes meant that families could no longer afford to maintain grand country homes such as Heckfield.
The estate was put on the market and sold to a tech firm, Racal Electronics, in 1982, which used it as a training center.
“They had absolutely no respect for the architectural details,” Chan said of Racal. “What they did was to take a grand room in the manor house, build a wall down the middle of it, and put a single bed and a shower on each side. It became a dormitory.”
When they ran out of space inside, Chan said, they built an addition.
“Part of it looked like a community center,” he said. “Seriously, you wouldn’t believe it. It was like an old folks’ home or a hospital.”
It was in shambles and stripped of character. The once celebrated gardens were long gone.
In 2002 Chan bought the property, sight unseen, and in 2009 he received permission from local officials to turn it into a hotel.
“I thought it was going to be a six-month project,” he said with a laugh.
Newspapers and magazines started anticipating the opening of Heckfield as a luxury hotel as early as 2012. News of the delays became something of an annual event. Last year the Financial Times called it “The UK’s most delayed hotel.”
Chan said he doesn’t understand how, or why, Heckfield’s delay became so notorious.
“It’s just not logical; we never announced it was going to be a hotel until last year,” he said. “We didn’t give them anything to anticipate, but that’s OK.”
Chan isn’t a flashy billionaire. He wasn’t bragging about the hotel or offering much in the way of details to the press before it opened, which further fueled speculative fires. Creative and culinary teams came and went as the project plodded along. Each departure and addition reported in UK publications only heightened anticipation.
Despite the multiple designers involved, he doesn’t describe the turnover in negative terms.
“It’s layering,” he said. “It’s different people contributing that makes the place so interesting. You’ve been to some hotels where sadly it speaks too loudly of the sensibility of one designer. It becomes monotonous. However good it is, it’s monotonous.”
Chan said he cycled through several designers on Heckfield, giving each one a clear directive of what he was looking for. He said he didn’t simply nix ideas, he got specific, letting them know that Heckfield was not a place to simply exercise creative license.
“All these young guys and girls, they learned a lot from me as they presented their work,” he said. “A lot of owners don’t have the artistic gravitas, and so they just let the designers do whatever they want. For me it wasn’t, ‘Oh, I don’t like that.’ I told them why I didn’t like it, or how to improve it. Down to the dimensions of the chairs.”
Chan’s exacting work, and the desire to get the details right, were also evident in the unhurried pace of the opening of his Harvard Square restaurant Parsnip and currently in the design of the reimagined Harvard Square Theater, which Chan bought in 2015. He offered plans for a new theater space in 2018 after Cambridge officials pressured him to reopen the theater. Those plans are still under review by the city.
Plans for Heckfield Place came together when 35-year-old designer Ben Thompson was brought on the project in 2015. “We jumped on board to help edit, redefine, and create a more connected place,” Thompson told the design website Remodelista. “At the time, the interior felt very alien to Hampshire — it had a more international hotel aesthetic that didn’t feel honest or believable. It has been our job to work hard with craftspeople rather than larger suppliers to ensure everything feels very considered and handmade.”
His work was so nuanced that Thompson said materials, colors, and textures in each room were uniquely tailored to the time of day when the rooms receive natural light.
The end result of the long process is a unique, gorgeous property that almost defies labels. It’s pristine, but not stuffy. It’s ambitious and fresh, but not unapproachably modern. Different eras of furniture and fixtures sit alongside period details. It feels like a place that has always been occupied and regularly updated.
“The entire ambiance of the hotel is so unique,” said Cheryl Moore, from the travel agency Travel Experts. Moore visited Heckfield Place on its opening weekend to evaluate it as a potential destination for clients. “From the staff uniforms to the unbelievable number of fresh flowers in the public areas and rooms. Talking about it makes me want to go back.”
My room at Heckfield did not feel like a standard new hotel room. There were plants that looked as if they’d been growing there for years. There were pieces from Chan’s art collection on the walls. Textures were everywhere — from the gray felted sofa to the seagrass carpet in the seating area to the leather-covered mini bar filled with juices made on site. The soft bed and luxurious duvet were much appreciated after an arduous drive from London.
When I asked Chan if his process of refurbishing Heckfield Place offers any clues as to how he’ll tackle his Harvard Square properties, he casually deflected the question by asking how I liked my stay at Heckfield and what I thought of the property. I politely answered the question, and then tried again.
“I’m still trying to figure this one out,” he told me. “You walk around the Square and it’s not what it used to be, right? All of us old-timers feel that. Look at the number of vacant spaces and the amount of foot traffic. Some days this place feels like a ghost town.”
His rapport with the denizens of the neighborhood is clear. During the interview, the owner of a pizza shop came by to chat. Chan asked a homeless man he was familiar with if he’d like a cup of coffee. He playfully chided another local for smoking a cigar.
“I certainly can’t do it all myself,” he said of helping the neighborhood. “Just last week I rode my bicycle past one of the guys who’s had a business here for decades, and he said he’s thinking of packing it in. It’s very sad. These are important aspects of the neighborhood.”
Before I could get him to talk more about Harvard Square, it was time for Chan to get on with his day. I kept him for two hours, and he needed to hop back on his bike and pedal home.
So how about all of those future plans for Harvard Square? Let’s just say they remain fittingly elusive and mysterious. Meanwhile, we have Heckfield Place to enjoy.