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A street view of the white fake London townhouses and adjoining properties

This London townhouse isn’t quite all it seems

They say that to make a house a home you just need to add a few little touches, the odd cushion here or candle there maybe, but in London there exists two houses that even the most accomplished homemaker may have their work cut out with. On the face of it, 23 to 24 Leinster Gardens in Bayswater, London, is every designer’s dream; a picture perfect Georgian terrace, complete with a balconies and columns. However, all is not quite what it seems. As it turns out, they’re not actually houses but in fact false facades, each providing the illusion of the archetypal London townhouse. Behind them, sits a vacant space containing only a few steel rafters that help to support the neighbouring houses. The facades are so convincing however, that on a sunny afternoon, stroll along this well-heeled street and you probably wouldn’t even notice.

The fake fronts date back to the 1860s and were introduced during the building of the Metropolitan railway, the world’s first ever underground line. A forerunner to the Metropolitan line that Londoners know and love (read: tolerate) today, this line connected Paddington, Euston and Kings Cross to the City of London. In order to construct the tunnels, which cut right underneath numbers 23 and 24, these two houses had to be demolished and rather that rebuild them, it was proposed that the space could be used for the steam trains to “vent off”. At the time, all trains were powered by steam and so the railway was built using what it known as a “cut and cover” method, featuring shallow tunnels that allowed trains to dip in and out of the darkness in order to release their steam and keep the tunnels free from excessive smoke.

Sepia image of the railway under construction with workers dwarfed by the surrounding houses Credit: Getty

In poorer areas, the practice of venting off was done in full view of local residents however, to disrupt the aesthetics of a fancy Georgian street for such an industrial reason was an absolute no-go and it was decided that the practice should be shielded from view. After objections about the situation from the residents of Leinster Gardens, a solution was found: to erect false facades that blended in seamlessly with their surroundings. It's worth noting that clearing away homes to build infrastructure wasn’t exactly something the Victorian authorities were averse to and it is estimated that over 50,000 people, mostly poor and working class, were displaced during the 1860s to make way for new railways. However, in these cases no effort was made to rectify the visual disruption to the area, hence why these "houses" are unique.

As for the facades themselves, they are all but identical to the occupied houses either side except for two tiny details: the grey painted boxed up windows and the lack of a letterbox. If you didn’t notice the difference in the picture above, then don’t worry, you’re not the first to fall for it. Back in the 1930s a cheeky, if enterprising, fraudster reportedly sold tickets to a charity ball at the houses for 10 guineas apiece. It was only when people turned up decked out in their finery that they discovered they were, quite literally, all dressed up with nowhere to go. More recently, the facades featured in the final scenes of an episode of the BBC's Sherlock Holmes.

The red brick New York townhouse that is actually just a front Credit: Flickr/Matt Green

London isn’t the only place to use the "fake house" trick either. In Suffolk, England, there is a cottage with a false church facade on one side, complete with bell tower, that was erected back in the 1700s when the local landowner decided that he did not like the view of the houses. Further afield, Paris has a particular penchant for false frontages with a whole host of buildings that are not quite what they seem, including a fake townhouse which acts as a metro vent and is so well disguised that until recently its very existence was merely a rumour. Similarly, in Brooklyn, New York there is a “townhouse” with blacked out windows that acts both as a subway ventilation point and an emergency exit from the tunnels below.

Today, the houses at Leinster Gardens, if they still stood, would be worth big bucks - the going rate for a two bed flat on the street now stands in the region of £1 million. But no matter how surreptitious these two townhouses may appear, it's hard to imagine that smoke pluming out and the roaring sound of the underground would have kept quite the same neighbourhood appearances up. Considering the (lo)commotion - sorry, couldn't resist - the original problem caused, it seems quite a clever solution, really.