Friday, 15 July 2011

No. 227, High Street

Despite being one of Exeter's most noticeable historical properties, No. 227 on the High Street is yet another building where antiquity is only skin deep. No. 227 is the brightly-coloured facade seen in the photograph left standing next to to the black and white Tudor facade of No. 226, High Street.)

No. 227 was built between 1660 and 1670, probably for one of Exeter's very wealthy cloth merchants, before being purchased by the city in 1733 in whose possession it remained until 1815. An advertisement for the property appeared in Trewman's Exeter Flying Post in 1842, along with the following description of the extensive accommodation: "a spacious shop, sitting room and show room, on the ground floor, with excellent cellars in the basement; on the first floor, two sitting rooms, kitchen and scullery; on the second floor, three bedrooms; and four bedrooms on the third floor. There is a good court behind, and the property has the advantage of a side entrance." By 1843 the building was occupied by the tailors and hosiers, J & G Ross, and the firm remained at No. 227 until the 1950s. Despite narrowly escaping destruction in the bombing raid of 04 May 1942, the local authority appeared determined to destroy the mid-17th century building.

The first attempts to demolish both No. 227 and its 16th century neighbour arose in 1958 with a plan to widen the High Street, even though both buildings had received Grade II* listed status in 1953. Objections to the proposals rumbled on throughout 1959 and into 1960, when another application was made to have the properties removed followed by yet another in 1962. It is incredible that anything of the buildings survived considering the council's determination to demolish them.

It wasn't until 1969 that a compromise was reached, but a compromise that was only one step away from total demolition. The plan involved the destruction of everything except for the facades of Nos. 226 and 227 and it was this plan which was eventually implemented in 1971, leaving just the heavily restored frontages still standing. All the rooms, the roofs and the other exterior walls were torn down and replaced with modern, open-plan retail space.

The demolition took place without any archaeological record being made of the building, although some significant features were destroyed in the process. A passageway flagged in stone ran through the building to the rear. This was demolished. A mid-17th century mullioned, six-light window with ovolo mouldings existed in the rear wall. This was demolished. A substantial 17th century oak staircase with turned balusters remained on the second and third floors. This too was demolished, as was much of the original roof. And so as far as No. 227 is concerned, the only element worthy of consideration is the facade.

The photograph left dates to c1920 and shows Nos. 226 and 227 when they both still retained their late-19th century shop fronts and when they were still part of a harmonious urban landscape. It's worth repeating again that this part of Exeter escaped any bomb damage during 1942 and remained almost exactly as it appears in the photograph until the early 1970s, at which point all the buildings highlighted in red were demolished leaving the two timber-frame properties incongruously surrounded by modern development e.g. the demolition of the Victorian terrace on Queen Street.)

Several commentators and historians have noted that the front of No. 227 is important as an example of a transitional architectural style which combines a traditional timber-frame construction with classically-inspired details. (A similar facade from the mid-1600s existed at 38 North Street until it was demolished in 1972.) Each floor is supported on brackets as they jetty out over the High Street. Both the first and second floors have continuous leaded windows stretching from side to side with a pedimented Ipswich window included on the first floor, either side of which are sections of oak parapet.

Inset within the pediment is the coat of arms of the Merchant Taylors with two camel supporters, underneath which is inscribed the company's motto: Concordia Parvae Res Crescunt: (In Harmony Do Small Things Grow). The coat of arms, along with the sequence of heraldic shields below were all presumably added at the time of the 1878 restoration to mirror Ross's profession. The fourth floor features a four bay arcaded opening with more parapets and with windows behind. A further window with (dubious) scallop-shaped decoration above is set into the fifth floor gable end, which is also profusely hung with slate. Perhaps the over-riding impression veers slightly too much towards 'Swiss chalet' but it's difficult to know precisely the extent of the inevitable alterations which have taken place since the mid-17th century.

The house underwent a major restoration in 1878, while still in the hands of Ross, and fortunately a report appeared in Trewman's Exeter Flying Post describing some of the process. According to the report the work carried out was "the first restoration in domestic architecture of the middle of the 17th century that has been made in the city". The article states that some elements of the facade had been "considerably marred by clumsy repairs and painting" but that "enough remained to indicate what should be replaced".

The intention of the architect behind the restoration, T. Lidstone of Dartmouth, was "to embellish" the frontage "by replacing the old bold outline of the moulded work". The facade was repainted using traces of original paint left on the oak timbers for guidance and it seems the slated gable end was also totally renewed, as was much of the woodwork, including all the brackets. Both Peter Thomas and Hugh Meller describe the 1878 restoration as "careful" but, like its Tudor neighbour at No. 226, the frontage today looks disconcertingly new. The facade certainly wasn't helped when, in 1971, the shop front itself was swept away and the facade was jacked up onto steel girders allowing pedestrians to walk unimpeded underneath.

Today the surviving facade of No. 227 lacks any context within a wider historic cityscape, surrounded as it is with 1970s redevelopment and sitting on the edge of the vast post-war reconstruction of the High Street below.


No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...