The early history of the Elmbank is oddly unclear for so important and recent a building. It is estimated to have been built about 1870 for William Benson Richardson, to designs created by the York architects, JB. and W. Atkinson. The Atkinsons, whose work has for many years been undervalued, were responsible for much mid‑19th century development in the Mount; villas and terraces on a scale new to York.
Richardson had married his mother's Lady's maid and though this socially interesting match remained childless, he built a large extension to the house in 1874, also to the Atkinson’s designs. This has since been remodelled and heightened in a manner detrimental to the whole design.
The original house was a typical, large scale, Atkinson villa handsomely detailed with a few, single architectural elements - portico, bow window and the obligatory tower with a nice touch of rustication at the base. Everything in cream‑grey brick with stone dressings and exceedingly restrained.
Richardson moved to Easingwold in 1892 and John Grant Lawson bought the house, until he moved to Knavesmire Lodge in 1898. Sidney Leetham, the Miller, then bought this house and commissioned W. G. and A.J Penty to redecorate the interior.
W. G. Penty had been practising in the City for many years specialising in elaborate commercial buildings which owed much, though by no means everything, to the style of Alfred Waterhouse. His son, A.J Penty, joined the firm in the 1890s and their style changed to the much modern Arts and Crafts style, culminating in their magnificent mill for Leetham, built by the River Foss in 1896. The Penty’s brought in George Walton to work on the interior decorations thus introducing the International Art Nouveau style to the city.
Walton had already been working for some 10 years as a designer in Glasgow, latterly in collaboration with C.R. Mackintosh on the Buchanan Street Tea Rooms. He set up business in York briefly, before moving on to London. Much Walton or Walton‑inspired material appeared in the city, though sadly little of it remains today.
It is the survival of so much of the Elmbank decoration that gives the building its international importance and the restoration and recovery of so much of this work reflects immense credit on recent and present owners.