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Archive - Friday, 7 March 2003
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Decline of star residence
For years Embassy Court in King's Road, Brighton, stood proudly as an elegant art deco wonder, one of the most desirable and sought-after addresses in Brighton and Hove.
Writer Keith Waterhouse, comedian Max Miller and film star Rex Harrison were among the well-heeled residents checking into what were England's first penthouse suites.
But block of flats has long since become an embarrassing eyesore - and residents are desperate to get out.
Built in 1935 by Wells Coates, Embassy Court won plaudits for its gleaming white walls and plush interior.
Since then, the listed building on the seafront has been allowed to slide into disrepair amid a succession of complex legal disputes over who its responsible for its upkeep.
The shining white surfaces have been blotted out by grime.
Windows throughout the building are clumsily boarded up. Some have fallen from their rotting frames onto the pavement below.
Doors are either hanging off their hinges or smashed. Creaking, clanking lifts can only be relied upon to be unreliable.
Lax security measures mean drunks, drug addicts and rough sleepers roam the corridors, making residents scared to step outside their flats.
Manal Shahdr and her family arrived from Sudan three years ago but their visions of a better quality of living in Britain soon evaporated.
Miss Shahdr, 19, said: "Everyone tells us what a nice building Embassy Court used to be. But now it is like something from the Third World.
"We cannot fix the windows, which makes it freezing cold in here. We have water coming through the ceilings.
"It feels dangerous here. There are drug addicts about and lots of needles and blood on the walls. We could not find anywhere else. If we could move, we would."
The rot started in the Seventies when many flats were taken over by absentee leaseholders and a succession of freeholders.
Leaseholders who built up large rent arrears have been blamed for the lack of money to maintain the block.
David Marcel's Portvale company owned the freehold until 1997, when the firm went into liquidation after being ordered by a court to carry out £1.5 million repairs.
After another court battle, the freehold passed to the Crown Estate Commissioners which was then taken over by the residents' association.
Then the writs began to fly.
The residents formed a company called Bluestorm and last year applied for a ruling ordering Portvale Holdings to pay its service charges.
Mr Marcel is a director of Portvale Holdings, which owns nine of the 72 flats in Embassy Court.
The firm applied for a counter-claim for damages against Bluestorm for failing to carry out repairs.
Another counter-claim was made against Bluestorm by Portvale Holdings' solicitor Chris Camillin, who owns 15 flats.
He wanted a specific performance order forcing Bluestorm to restore the building.
Meanwhile it is the residents - many of them students, young professionals or asylum seekers - who suffer the consequences.
Confusion over who is responsible for funding improvements and maintenance means little progress is made.
It is estimated it would cost at least £4.5 million to restore the building.
One resident, whose lease is about to expire, said: "There is no way I am staying on here - the last day cannot come a moment too soon.
"The windows were put in in the Thirties and that is when they were last looked after. The noise is just like living on a motorway.
"People come in to sleep rough, many of them drunk or on drugs. I never feel safe."
He believes the building needs double glazing and a new central heating system.
Bob Barbour and his girlfriend Anna Contreras have suffered several early-morning rude awakenings.
Mr Barbour, 22, said: "At about three in the morning we had a guy turn up literally foaming at the mouth, trying to force his way into the flat.
"Another time someone stuck his head through the window while we were in bed."
Last August he woke in the early hours to find an intruder in his bedroom, who fled with his mobile phone and his flatmate's wallet.
The burglar had simply pushed Mr Barbour's front door open against the lock.
Attempts to beef up security with stronger front doors and entryphones have been frustrated. Locks were easily picked and the distribution of keys to residents was patchy.
Some residents, denied keys to get in, were driven to break down the main door themselves - thus allowing anyone in.
In contrast with the shabby corridors and grim, rotting exteriors, Mr Barbour and Miss Contreras insist they are happy with the inside of their flat.
Top-floor resident Theo Mayers is not so sure.
He has had to insulate the windows with masking tape to ward off the winds whistling through gaps in the frames.
He said: "The interior decor of the building is just in complete disrepair. You don't have to worry about opening doors because you can step through most of them and I think there may be asbestos in the lifts."
Mr Mayers, a 22-year-old chef, was told when he arrived last June the building would be renovated soon.
He said: "When I pulled up outside for the first time I thought: 'There is not a chance of me going to live there'."
But he was attracted by the relatively cheap rent: £750 a month for a three-bedroom flat, although he said the third bedroom is a boxroom.
Student Adrian Fasan, 24, is another resident who has found himself in Embassy Court despite initial misgivings.
He said: "Before I moved here, every time I went past the building I thought: 'Bloody hell, I'll never live there'."
He was lured by the seafront location and the relative attractiveness inside the flat.
He said: "The outside of the building is so oppressive, as soon as you come in you just put your head down until you're safely inside your own front door.
"I hate it when all the tramps break in and sleep downstairs and on the stairwells.
"No one ever gets round to doing anything about the problems."
The original brochure, produced by Mayfair-based managing agents Dudley Samuel and Harrison, boasted: "At Embassy Court, beauty and utility go hand in hand."
It was one of the first properties in the country to provide lock-up garages for tenants.
The agents also boasted it was the first building in England to use "sun-admitting Vista-Glass sun parlours" as well as open balconies.
The brochure stated: "Old ideas have been discarded and a new building has arisen to greet a new age that thinks of happiness in terms of health."
Unfortunately, such optimism did not last.
Journalist and novelist Keith Waterhouse lived on the ninth floor from 1983 to 1992 before moving to Bath. He once compared the block of flats to an East End slum.
Yesterday's court ruling may be the crucial lever to lift Embassy Court out of years of neglect and decay.
But the long-suffering residents know a lot more time, work and patience will be needed before their homes can once more boast of "greeting a new age". If ever.