You may have never heard of the apartment complex in London simply called "Albany," but chances are you have read about it in a book or even seen it mentioned in a movie. Quite simply, Albany was the exclusive set of bachelor flats in London, perhaps in all of England. Today it is no longer restricted to bachelors, although it is still very, very exclusive.
The origins of Albany go back to the 18th century. It was in 1771 when the Viscount Melbourne bought property in Piccadilly for £16,500. It was designed by Scottish architect Sir William Chambers, then perhaps the greatest architect in all of the United Kingdom. He also built Somerset House and the gilded state coach that is still used in British coronations to this day. The Viscount's wife directed most of its design and construction, which took four years to complete. In the end, the building cost Viscount Melbourne £50,000. Naturally, it was first called Melbourne House.
Between the cost of Melbourne House and their high life style, the Viscount and Viscountess Melbourne found they could not afford to remain there. The house was bought by Frederick the Duke of York and Albany (King George III's younger brother) in 1791. Unfortunately, Duke Frederick also tried to live beyond his means and was forced to sell the house as well. Real estate developer Alexander Copland bought it in 1802 for nearly £30,000 less than what the Duke of York and Albany had paid for it. Copland hired architect Henry Holland (best known for his work on Brooks's Club, the Theatre Royal, and Hans Town) to convert what was then called the York House into 69 sets of bachelor apartments. What had originally been known as Melbourne House and was then called York House, then became "Albany" for the Duke of York and Albany.
Then as now, a set of rooms in Albany can be owned outright as an American condominium unit would be. Sets can also be owned in what is known as "fee farm," in which annual rent is paid to an owner who is absent from Albany or living in another part of the apartment house. To live in Albany or even own a set of rooms there, one must sign a Deed of Covenant to obey the rules as set forth by the Board of Trustees before he or she can even own or lease rooms there.
Albany was originally restricted to bachelors. Women could not even visit male friends there unless they did so in disguise or sneaked in through the vaults (the underground portion of Albany). This would remain the case until the 1880s, when Albany was finally opened to women. Even today children, pets, and musical instruments are banned in Albany. While it is no longer open to only bachelors, Albany still insures the privacy of its residents. Two porters in uniforms guarded the doors. Today entrance to Albany can only be gained through plastic security cards.
For nearly its entire history Albany has been home to the rich and famous. Perhaps its first famed tenant, and certainly its most notorious, was Lord Byron. Lady Caroline Lamb, who had a torrid affair with Byron while she was married, once sneaked into Albany disguised as a pageboy to leave Byron a note. Before he was prime minister, William Gladstone lived there. Over the years Albany has been home to actor Sir Squire Bancroft, photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, 1st Earl of Snowdon, writer Aldous Huxley, philosopher Isaiah Berlin, writer Graham Greene, and actor Terence Stamp.
Not surprisingly, Albany has figured prominently in stories, novels and plays. In the novel Our Mutual Friend Fascination Fledgeby claimed residence in Albany. It was the home of Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Lord Lufton of Framley Parsonage by Sir Anthony Trollope also resided in Albany. As might be expected, characters in the works of P. G. Wodehouse also lived in Albany: Sir Godfrey Tanner, K.C.M.G. in Creatures of Impulse, Patrick Mceachem in The Gem Collector, and Freddie Rooke in The Little Warrior, among others. Early 20th century crime writer Dornford Yates mentioned Albany in his works. Marmion Savage wrote of Albany's fierce porters. The play While the Sun Shines, by Albany resident Terence Rattigan, was set there. Perhaps the most famous fictional resident of Albany was gentleman thief A. J. Raffles, the protagonist of several stories by E. W. Hornung (Arthur Conan Doyle's brother in law).
Today Albany remains a living example of the once powerful class system in England. It is also one of the very few residential places remaining in Mayfair. To this day it remains the most exclusive apartment complex in all of London, perhaps the whole of the United Kingdom. One rather suspects it will remain so for years to come.