Tuesday, 1 November 2016

The 2016 Fire in Cathedral Yard

As everyone in Exeter now knows, on 28 October 2016 several buildings in the Cathedral Yard were seriously damaged in a fire, including the Royal Clarence Hotel. Most of the affected structures are historically or architecturally important Grade II listed properties, including the hotel, No. 18 Cathedral Yard below left, the Well House inn at 16 & 17 Cathedral Yard and the former Exeter Bank building on the corner of Cathedral Yard and St Martin's Lane. Unfortunately both the Royal Clarence Hotel and No. 18 Cathedral Yard were almost completely destroyed.

It is also a testament to the work of the fire service that the conflagration didn't spread significantly into the small group of 16th buildings that front onto the High Street, although even here there was damage. If the fire had occurred at any other period in time then it's highly likely that these, arguably even more significant buildings, would've been lost too. 

Cliche it may be, but it could easily have been much worse. And there's obviously also a salutary lesson here in the dangers of having all your historical/architectural eggs in one small basket. Exeter has so few of these 'eggs' that it really can't afford to lose the ones it's got

Another rather unfortunate consequence is that it's led to a resurgence in the usual bleating about the damage caused by the 'Exeter Blitz', and it reminded me again how deeply ingrained this particular myth is in the general Exeter consciousness. Even the bishop was at it, for goodness sake, claiming that the 1942 air-raid destroyed "lots of our medieval buildings in Exeter" as if that event was solely responsible for the destruction of Exeter as a visually historic city. At least Dr Todd Gray, when interviewed by the BBC,  mentioned the destructive redevelopments of the 1960s and 1970s while adding that the Blitz only affected 25% of the city [not 75% as many seem to believe].
It seems that the fire started in No. 18 Cathedral Yard. The ground floor was being used as an art gallery and the upper floors were in the process of being converted into luxury apartments. According to media reports, the upper floors had been empty for an incredible ten years as various schemes for their use fell through.  

Built c.1910, No. 18 was Grade II listed and built of red brick with stucco dressings, pilasters and entablature at each level. It also had a distinctive Mansard roof more typical of France than southwest England. In his book 'Exeter Architecture', Hugh Meller writes that "there is a theory that it was built by a curio collector with a fancy for the French renaissance...it was certainly a curious person who dreamt up the interior" right. Dark mahogany doors with inset mirrored panels and framed by Corinthian pilasters led from room to room, an effect that Meller describes as "weirdly surreal". A staircase, at least part of which was 18th century, ascended through the centre of the building with a galleried landing on the first floor. 

The most remarkable room however had "gilded wallpaper in the Pompeian style", large mirrors, black fireplaces decorated with stone lions and a very elaborate gilded cornice. Pevsner/Cherry describe this room as "very lavishly decorated in the Louis Quinze style". It's a pity more people couldn't have seen these interiors before they were destroyed at the weekend. No. 18 has been left as a shell although perhaps the exterior at least can be salvaged.

Nos. 16 & 17 Cathedral Yard left date from the 1600s, although the facades were refurbished in the 19th century. This makes them some of the oldest surviving timber-framed domestic houses within the city walls. Both stand on very long, narrow tenement plots of a sort once found thoroughout Exeter.

The buildings are known to most people today as the site of the Well House inn. The name derives from a well discovered in 1933 of allegedly Roman date which can be seen in the cellars. The cellars also contain a skeleton comprising the bones of two separate individuals. This feeds into the ridiculous story of the bones being the remains of a monk and some woman with whom he was having an illicit affair. 
Although badly damaged by the fire, especially at the rear, enough appears to survive of both Nos. 16 & 17 to make restoration a real possibility. It's incredible that anything remains of them at all given their wooden construction and the almost total destruction of the buildings on either side. The fire seems to have passed from No. 18 to the Royal Clarence Hotel via the gabled roofs of Nos. 16 & 17 while leaving the fronts and floors relatively intact.

Unfortunately the same can't be said of the Royal Clarence Hotel above, built in 1769 by William Mackworth Praed as the city's Assembly Rooms. According to local historian W. G. Hoskins, "this became the first hostelry in England to be called an hotel, the name being first used in an advertisement dated September 7, 1770". The proprietor at the time was the Frenchman, Pierre Berlon. As Hoskins writes, "for a long time his establishment was known simply as The Hotel, even the New London - its great rival - describing itself as an inn".

The Hotel was just one of numerous coaching inns and taverns which flourished in the city throughout the 17th and 18th centuries e.g. the Globe, the London, the previously-mentioned New London, the Mermaid, the White Hart, the Valiant Soldier, the Bear on South Street, the Black Lions, the Elephant on North Street, the Half Moon and, oldest of all, the New Inn on the High Street, to name just a few.

Alexander Jenkins, in his 1806 history of Exeter, claimed that "the Hotel" was "the only House worthy [of] notice" in the whole parish of St Martin's. He described it as "a large and commodious Inn, with elegant apartments and accommodation for people of the first Quality, with a large assembly-room, in which are held the Assize Balls, Concerts and Winter assemblies, of the most distinguished persons of the City and County" [a role that was later to be taken up by the Public Subscription Rooms at the former East Gate]. The photo above right shows the Royal Clarence Hotel from the north tower of the Cathedral with associated structures visible behind the facade.

Like all the buildings affected by the fire, the Royal Clarence Hotel stood within the footprint of the Roman legionary fort established in the middle of the first century AD by the future emperor of Rome, Vespasian. However, the history of the site really only takes shape during the Middle Ages when, in the 1440s, it was occupied by houses belonging to the canons at the Cathedral, including one William Pencrych. According to Todd Gray, the ground floor and first floor of the Hotel incorporated medieval fabric. In 1732 it was the site of a large house belonging to Nathaniel Matthews and presumably it was this building that was demolished in order to construct what became the Royal Clarence.

The original 1769 stucco facade was altered during a remodelling in 1827, and it was then that both the bay windows were added and the unfortunate plain sash windows which, compared with the glazing bars of the original, did the facade few favours.

The most attractive details were the two coats of arms with which it was adorned: one on the parapet above, which has unfortunately fallen into the remains of the interior, and another on the Tuscan porch bottom which is one of the finest in the city and which will hopefully be salvaged along with the ornamental ironwork when the ruins are demolished later in the week.

As Hugh Meller fairly states, the Hotel was "more significant for its historical connections than for its architecture". It was certainly built too late to feature the elaborate late 17th century plaster ceilings which were such a distinctive feature of several other Exeter's coaching inns [e.g. the New Inn and the Half Moon]. But it had a guest list with which nowhere in Exeter could compare: Lord Nelson, Beatrix Potter, Liszt and Thomas Hardy were just a few of the well-known figures who stayed at the Clarence. The name derived from a visit in 1827 by Adelaide, the Duchess of Clarence, wife of the future William IV.

The last property to suffer serious damage was the building on the corner of Cathedral Yard and St Martin's Lane. Now part of the Royal Clarence and Grade II listed, it was constructed in 1769, again by William Praed, as Exeter's first bank right. It opened its doors on 09 July 1769. It was also once the site of Deller's Cafe before that business moved to its extraordinary new premises in Bedford Street in 1916.

As a fan of 18th century neoclassical architecture, I think this is one of the most attractive buildings in the city and beautiful in almost every detail. Fortunately the emergency services prevented the fire from engulfing the entire structure. Aerial photographs appear to show the loss of the roof and the attic rooms, and presumably there will be significant water damage, but the bulk of the building appears to have survived intact.

There are at least seven other timber-framed structures from the 16th and 17th centuries surrounding those most badly damaged by the fire, sometimes abutting directly onto them: No. 39, No. 40Nos. 41 & 42 High Street [Laura Ashley], Nos. 43, 44 & 45 and Nos. 46 & 47 High Street [No. 46 is believed to have the oldest surviving carved domestic street frontage in Devon]. Remarkably, none of these have been seriously harmed by the fire. Only the actions of the fire service prevented them being burned to the ground.

Talk has already moved onto what will replace the Royal Clarence Hotel even before the ruins have been demolished. The owners have issued a statement on the subject: "Looking to the future of The Royal Clarence, we have every intention to rebuild the hotel with enormous sympathy to its importance and heritage" [a first for Exeter]. And I've seen several comments from people hoping that the replacement won't be "something modern" [don't tell Exeter City Council].

The bishop has also expressed his opinion: "All the historic stuff inside has gone, you can’t replace it, but at least I hope and pray that they rebuild the frontage as it was because it deserves to be there because that’s what will preserve at least the veneer of the architectural continuity on the Cathedral Green".

But since at least 1900, Exeter has always built modern and built new, a doctrine which obviously came to the fore during the post-war reconstruction of the 1950s and the redevelopments in the subsequent decades left. The Royal Clarence is in a far worse condition now than many other significant buildings damaged in 1942, all of which were subsequently demolished and replaced with "something modern".

Exeter set its back to the past and turned its face to the future after the Second World War, an ideology which has informed almost every planning decision taken by Exeter City Council between 1945 and the present day. Just think about the post-war reconstruction, or the demolition of medieval houses in the 1970s to build the Guildhall Shopping Centre, or the demolition of Goldsmith Street, or the creation of the inner bypass and redevelopment of Cowick Street, the old Debenhams building, the latest hideous incarnation of Princesshay or the new plans for Sidwell Street, mindless in-fill like Nos. 50 - 52 High Street, or the atrocious Marks & Spencer building of 1980.

Exeter's integrity as a visually historical city isn't dependent on the construction of a Royal Clarence facsimile facade. That boat sailed a long time ago, so whether a facsimile facade is built or not doesn't actually matter.

Theoretically, a modern architect should be commissioned to come up with something grossly inappropriate. If 'modern' was good enough for the new Princesshay right, to name a recent example, then why not for the Cathedral Green, or is the face of 'modern' Exeter so repugnant that it can't be seen to sully the genteel confines of the ecclesiastical precinct?

Surely, if the City Council insisted on a replica facade it would be a huge repudiation of its own philosophy: build new, build modern [although selling Exeter as an attractive historical city would be that little bit harder with a modern carbuncle on the face of one the few remaining historical fragments].

Exeter doesn't 'do' historical reconstructions. Why should it start now?

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