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Camden New Journal - OBITUARY
Published: 9 August 2007
Harold Deco
Harold Deco, ‘a terrific character’
Property developer who left his mark on landscape

HAROLD Deco, the property developer who played a key role in changing the living landscape on either side of Hampstead Heath with modern housing projects, has died in hospital after a short battle against cancer.
He had lived in Keats Grove, Hampstead, for the past 20 years, and was 81.
A man of great charisma, humour and generosity, he virtually started with nothing, borrowing £200 from an aunt to buy his first house for conversion, in Gayton Road, Hampstead, and went on to make a major impact on the local scene and, at one time, own his own home outside Florence.
His proudest achievement was award-winning West Hill Park, a social mix of cheap studio flats and expensive houses built on convent land in Highgate, where the properties today sell for millions.
“He was a terrific, terrific character, who led a fascinating life,” said his surveyor partner and brother-in-law, John Villiers. “Not everyone has the privilege of leaving a mark on the landscape that is worth seeing. Between us we actually made an impact on the local scene that has lasted. That is Harold’s heritage.”
He was the property developer people liked, who left a smile on the face of everyone he met, a man with incredible vitality and a breadth of interests, who many looked up to as a father figure and mentor.
His interests ranged from launching Keats restaurant, in Downshire Hill, Hampstead, to cockles and mussels stalls; from having his own Italian olive grove to creating a chain of dry cleaners and a hairdressers in the Strand; and starting two private primary schools, one in Willoughby Road, Hampstead.
But at heart he was a typical Taurean builder, who enjoyed the process of creating houses of quality, often including costly features that detracted from any profit because he believed in in good design and the use of the finest materials.
And he played a role in the community, using his expertise to promote Hampstead Community Market in Hampstead High Street, a pioneering project led by New Hampstead Society members Nancy and Noel Hill, and giving his support to actor Lee Montague, his friend and neighbour, in saving Keats Grove library for public use.
Born in Ilford, the son of a Russian furniture maker who had come to England at the age of eight, he left school at 13 without any qualifications and, at 15, was a laundry boy delivering to Bletchley Park, the war-time secret code centre in Bedfordshire, without ever discovering what went on there.
At 18 he joined the RAF and served at Bomber Command HQ in High Wycombe. As an idealist for the creation of Israel as a Jewish state, he then served in the Israeli Air Force and helped struggling refu­gees start life there.
Returning to England after the Jewish state was declared in 1948, he worked for furniture makers Epstein and Goldman but didn’t enjoy the work. After buying his first house in Gayton Road, Hampstead, for £200 and selling it for £2,000, he became a solo property developer, bringing new life to dilapidated Victorian and Edwardian houses by converting them into much needed flats.
This culminated in him joining forces with John Villiers in 1955. Operating from a small office on Rosslyn Hill, they proved an excellent team of opposites who carried out scores of conversions in Hampstead.
“There is hardly a street we didn’t visit,” recalled John.
“In those days Hampstead was so much more a relaxed world, a lovely, intimate village environment where you couldn’t walk up the High Street in a hurry because you were stopped by all the people you knew. And that is what Harold loved.”
From conversions, the pair extended into flat developments in Wimbledon, Kew and Barnet, as well as Hampstead, where one scheme was Spencer House, on the site of the Vale of Health pub, on the edge of the Heath.
“We named it after the painter Stanley Spencer, who shared a studio in the old pub with Henry Lamb, the property being sold to us by one of the fairground family who owned it,” said John. “The story we were told was that a load of canvases found in the old pub had been thrown out and burnt. Harold and I went over the place with a fine toothcomb but we didn’t find anything.”
A major leap forward came when the duo linked up with the admired South African architect Ted Levy and his partners Issy Benjamin and Ike Horvitch.
Together they built key flats in Wedderburn Road, then 14 houses on the Cenacle Convent site, off West Heath Road, and, in a period of four years in the 1970s, 46 houses and eight flats at West Hill Park – a social mix of high and low cost properties that nevertheless today sell for millions.
Other developments Harold and John were involved with included flats for students in Haverstock Hill and Lancaster Grove; Arts and Crafts houses in Glenilla Road; the conversion of Moreton House, Holly Walk, into six flats, four let to overseas businessmen; and commercial office blocks in numerous parts of London.
Harold’s final solo flurry was an ultra-modern glass house with internal swimming pool and giant-sized outdoor chess board on the summit of Branch Hill, a half-completed scheme he took over after it got into financial difficulties and finished with success. The property, hidden behind a high wall, was later the home of the celebrated Arsenal footballer, Thierry Henry.
“He was very courageous at the end, telling jokes to his visitors at St John and St Elizabeth Hospital,” added John.
“My daughter went there to give him a manicure. ‘How long do you want your nails?’ she asked. Harold replied, ‘About three weeks’.”
Harold is survived by his second wife, Jennie, and his daughters Sarah and Melissa. Cremation was at Golders Green.
Gerald Isaaman

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