‘Downton Shabby’: A Commoner Takes on an English Castle

An actor and producer from Los Angeles moved across the pond in order to restore his ancestral home. It’s not easy to fix up a 50,000-square foot manor. Named after his family? No. Actor and producer in Los Angeles at the time, Mr. DePree was on his computer in the spring 2013 searching for his ancestors. He had been a fan of the past since his father’s death in 2008, and then his sudden death from a massive heart attack two years later. Mr. DePree was unsure of the future and left without a clear path. It was a comfort to trace his roots. That fateful evening, he found a link to a story on Lord Hopwood of Hopwood Hall as well as an old black-and white photo of a very grand home in Middleton (England), just outside Manchester. ImageMr. DePree at the guards’ room in the early part of last month. DePree in the guards’ room early last month. The roof was leaking profusely, dry rot was in full swing, moisture seeped from walls, plaster was falling from ceilings, windows and floors were missing panes, and many parts of the house were vandalized. The chimneys were brimming with trees. However, doors were dotted with rivets from medieval times — some parts of the house date back to 1426 — and doors with original hand-forged hardware. From ceiling to baseboard, intricate carvings were found on the wood-paneled walls of one of the parlors. The fireplace in the reception hall was decorated with an iteration the Hopwood family coat, the Hopwood’s heraldic animal, the stag, and the Hopwood family motto “By degrees.” “I knew this place was special,” said Mr. DePree, 52. “But I was told that if nothing is done, Hopwood Hall will crumble within five to ten years.” This is the same view in 2013. Credit…Fred Leao Prado. He recounts his efforts to save the hall and writes “Downton Shabby” (an American’s ultimate DIY Adventure Restoring His Family’s English Castle), a memoir that was published last month. According to the book, the Hopwoods lived there until the 1920s. After the deaths of their two heirs in World War I, their grieving parents moved to London and closed the property. The hall was used by a cotton company during World War II. In 1946, a monk order moved in for a few years. The property was taken over by the local authority in the late 1980s. They lacked the resources nor the will to maintain it. Bob Wall, Hopwood Hall’s long-serving caretaker, joked that the acronym actually stands for “Dim Inexperienced Yank.” Bob Wall, Hopwood Hall’s long-time caretaker, joked that the acronym actually stands for “Dim inexperienced Yank.” Image. Mr. DePree stated, “I think people had been hoping someone would lead the restoration.” The reception hall will soon be ready for its close-up.Credit…Hopwood Hall EstateBut credit where credit is due: The Yank has come a long way from the humiliating moment when he stood in a parking lot of a Home Depot in Los Angeles, almost in tears because he couldn’t figure out how to work the stick-on tiles he had bought for his bathroom floor.”I’ve learned how to mix mortar and make plaster molds. “I’ve learned how to do pointing in bricks,” said Mr. DePree. He sold his home in Los Angeles five year ago and moved to Middleton full-time to participate in preservation efforts. “But I wouldn’t say at all that I’m a skilled craftsman by any stretch of the imagination.”ImageThe reception hall before its face-lift.Credit…Hopwood Hall EstateStill, he has done plenty of heavy lifting since 2017, when he signed a contract with the Rochdale Borough Council, the local authority, to assume responsibility for Hopwood Hall. (The Council had already verified his family’s authenticity.) The deal gave Mr. DePree five more years to devise a practical and detailed plan to save his ancestral home, and to create a sustainable model to keep the lights off. Lord Byron supposedly wrote part of his celebrated poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” at Hopwood Hall.Credit…Hopwood Hall Estate”His quest really is the stuff of dreams,” Neil Emmott, the leader of the Council, wrote in an email. “When we first heard of Hopwood’s ambitions we weren’t sure if it was a viable proposition. We have seen the dream become a reality slowly but surely. His hard work and determination, along with the support of many community volunteers, has made it possible.” Geoff Wellens, a local historian, said that Hopwood was still feeling his way when he first met him. “I believe that anyone can do the job. It’s his family’s home. He has that family connection.” Bit by bit, Mr. DePree has become a public face of the effort and a dedicated fund-raiser. Recent grants from Historic England and the Rochdale Council have exceeded $1 million. This was thanks to an acquaintance who invited Mr. DePree to join Historic Houses, which is an association that includes the owners of many of Britain’s most important private residences. He met Lord and Lady Carnarvon, “Geordie” and “Fiona”, who were very welcoming at the first meeting of the group. They are the owners of Highclere Castle where “Downton Abbey” was filmed. Julian Fellowes, creator of “Downton Abbey”, and owner of Stafford House, a large pile on the south coast, was also present. Fellowes advised him about Hopwood Hall. He advised him to start with the roof and then move on to the rest of the restoration. DePree also wrote a one-man comedy about his struggles and triumphs. He toured the show at comedy festivals across the country. Soon after his move to Britain, he started a YouTube channel, posting videos for friends and supporters to track the progress of the restoration. The cause has been supported by the proceeds of his show, as well as a portion of the royalties from the book. “Many country houses in England have had to reinvent themselves to meet the enormous operating, staffing, and maintenance costs. Hopwood Hall is following a similar path,” Mr. DePree stated. DePree hopes to make the manor a cultural hub and tourist destination. A wedding destination, too. Hopwood Hall will have around 25 bedrooms to accommodate the festivities.ImageLady Hopwood frolicking on the lawn of Hopwood Hall with her pony and dogs around 1880.Credit…Courtesy Geoff WellensThere are now sometimes as many as 30 paid workers and eager volunteers at the hall on a given day. During a Zoom call, Mr. DePree said that “We’re moving ahead quite quickly.” He walked through the carriage entry, which is currently a holding area for large squares of slate to be paved the roof. “This year has been very exciting, because I’ve been able to walk into rooms that were not safe before.” But progress isn’t always steady. “A few weeks back, there was evidence that there might be bats in the hall. So we had to stop what we were doing immediately and consult experts to conduct a bat survey. Because bats are protected species, this is one of the many problems. Hopwood Hall is also a Historic England “Grade 2*” listed building. This designation is for structures of special architectural or historical importance. Walls can’t just be taken down; a newly discovered door cannot be pry open without permission. He said, “I’m learning heritage skills and understanding the fact that you can’t even use modern materials.” You will need to find goat hair and mix it with lime mortar using medieval techniques. And no off-the-rack windows — you have to use specific glass, Mr. DePree said, “and load it into a leaded-glass window, which is a whole skill unto itself.”ImageHopwood Hall’s carriage entrance will be restored to the glory that was familiar to previous residents, like Lady Hopwood in the 19th century.Credit…Courtesy Local Studies Centre, Touchstones Rochdale, Rochdale Arts & Heritage CentreUnder the terms of his agreement with the Council, Mr. DePree can move into Hopwood Hall as soon as it’s safe to do so — perhaps this year. He will become the property’s official owner at some point. “We’re getting closer and closer to the point where it can be entrusted me,” he stated. “Obviously, the family connection with the Council was a selling point,” Mr. DePree said. He said that his grandfather would be proud. Mr. DePree stated that his grandfather loved history and loved his Hopwood identity. “Maybe in a few hundred years people will read about this project, and there will be one to two lines about me.” Sign up here for weekly email updates about residential real estate news. Follow us on Twitter at @nytrealestate