Thursday, 14 July 2011

Nos. 206 & 207, High Street

Attractive though they are, the facades of these two buildings are totally fake, cast out of concrete in the 1970s, modified versions of the original frontages.

Still, the reproductions were apparently good enough to fool the city council's own recent conservation report which stated that Nos. 206 and 207 "retain their attractive early 19th century facades", before adding that "they have been totally gutted as part of the Guildhall Shopping Centre development." They weren't just gutted. They were both razed to the ground, despite the fact that both buildings were granted Grade II listed status in 1974. Just five years later, in 1979, the two 150-year-old properties were totally demolished by the city council. Presumably moulds were taken of the facades prior to demolition. Concrete replicas were then cast and inserted onto the fronts of the new constructions.

No. 206, shown to the left in the photograph at the top of this post, dated to the early 19th century. The original listing description suggested that the rendered front possibly concealed an older building but obviously none of this earlier structure remains today. The post-1979 facade differs markedly from the original. As it stands today the structure is on three floors with vermiculated quoins extending from ground level to the modillion cornice at the top, above which is a non-continuous balustraded parapet. On the first floor, above the modern shop front, are two 12-light pedimented sash windows with two slightly smaller 12-light plain sash windows on the second floor.

Before its demolition No. 206 actually spread over four floors. An entire floor was lost during the reconstruction, necessitating a reconfiguration of the layout of the facade. The two pedimented sash windows were still present in the original but were less tall, having only 8 lights each. The major element, now missing entirely, were five arched windows at first-floor level, each window separated by slim Doric columns above which was a dentile entablature. The photograph right dates to the 1960s and shows the five arched windows on the first floor of No. 206, the pedimented sash windows just visible above. The modillion cornice and the balustraded parapet were all part of the original, early-19th century facade but the current facade is a pale imitation of its predecessor, not helped by the dirty and stained appearance of the concrete from which it was cast.

Standing on the corner of the High Street and the much-mauled Goldsmith Street, No. 207 High Street hasn't fared much better (shown to the right in the photograph at the top of this post). The original building was slightly later than its neighbour, No. 206, and seems to have dated to the mid-19th century although stylistically both buildings were very similar, sharing the same modillion cornice and balustraded parapet. The facade that now looks onto the High Street is an almost exact replica of the original, the first floor dominated by a large Venetian window with a plain curved pediment inset with foliage details. Each window is separated by square columns topped with bulls eye rosettes. The second floor has two sash windows with decorated architraves.

The corner of the building is chamfered as it turns left, probably designed to ease the passage of horses and carts into what was for centuries the very narrow thoroughfare of Goldsmith Street (nearly all of which was also demolished in the late-1970s). The architrave around the first-floor window inset into the chamfer is a post-1979 addition although the second-floor sash window with decorated architrave is consistent with the original. The Goldsmith Street facade is now very different. Before 1979 the facade was at least one bay longer with both a large twin sash window under a curved pediment and another Venetian window, similar in design to the one that appears on the High Street facade. Only the Venetian window was replicated in the reconstruction, moved from its original position to nearer the corner with the High Street.

The replicated facades, even in their inaccurate and scruffy condition, are preferable to the majority of the architecture in the High Street, so it's diffcult to be too critical. In a rare exception, the local authority made an effort to retain some semblance of Exeter's architectural heritage but the modified facades are now without any historical context, the buildings to which they once belonged having been destroyed. Both buildings are still on the national register of listed buildings but they should be removed.

An interesting postscript comes in the form of a late-18th century painting (detail right) that depicts this section of Exeter's High Street and which shows which buildings existed on the site prior to the construction of Nos. 206 and 207 in the early-to-mid 19th century, highlighted in red. The Guildhall is visible to the left. It appears that at least part of the site of No. 206 was occupied by a large red-brick property. If No. 206 concealed some older fabric prior to its demolition in 1979 then it would've been part of this structure. Next to it is the site of No. 207, which was occupied in the 18th century by a timber-framed building from the late 1500s or early 1600s. (Incidentally, the tall, four-storey, gabled and timber-framed building to the far right is the same building that once stood directly in front of the church of Allhallows in Goldsmith Street until the end of the 19th century.)

The postcard view of the High Street below dates to c1900 and shows Nos. 206 and 207 to the right of the Guildhall. Apart from the Guildhall itself and the Turk's Head inn just visible to the far left, all of the buildings shown on this side of the High Street have since been demolished.


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