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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 February 2008, 10:40 GMT
For the love of bricks
Albert Dock at sunset

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

The Victorian Society is celebrating 50 years of trying to save the UK's 19th Century buildings. We love Victorian architecture now, but once their public buildings were being listed for demolition, their terraced houses were being gutted. What changed?

For many people today, the dream home is "period". And for many of the many, that "period" is Victorian.

Victorian terraces with their cornicing and patterned brickwork and bay windows are home to vast numbers of Britons.

10 THAT WERE SAVED
George Gilbert Scott's Foreign Office
Tyntesfield House, Somerset
Foreign Office, London
Shadwell Park, Norfolk
Llanfyllin Workhouse, Oswestry
Albert Dock, Liverpool
St Pancras station, London
Albert Memorial, London
Temperance Billiards Hall, London
Undershaw house, Surrey
Kentish Town Baths, London

And away from the urban areas where these robust little houses dominate, many in the UK feel an emotional connection with the major public buildings of the Victorian age.

But it was not ever thus. In 1958, the poet Sir John Betjeman and the architecture guru Nikolaus Pevsner set up the Victorian Society to save the nation's Victorian and Edwardian architecture from predation.

And predations there were plenty. The post-war years saw a crystallising of scepticism about Victorian buildings. The most zealous harbingers of modernism felt animosity towards buildings that were a contradiction of the white heat of technology.

"In the 1960s, 'Victorian' and 'monstrosity' were two words that seemed to be inextricably linked," says architect Robert Adam.

Two battles

Victorian was fusty, excessive, old, impractical, self-indulgent, snobbish, aloof architecture, utterly opposed to the age of space travel.

But the Victorian Society fought two battles that helped to slowly turn the tide, both involving buildings designed by the great George Gilbert Scott. One was against the mooted demolition of London's opulent Gothic revival St Pancras hotel and station, recognised with a statue of Betjeman in the newly Eurostar-hosting and fully renovated buildings.

DIY guru Barry Bucknell shows his delight at having boarded up a Victorian fireplace and installed a new gas heater
In the 1950s it was considered really hideous... Victorian fireplaces went in the skip
Sarah Beeny
Property Ladder

The other was over the neoclassical Foreign Office. In 1963, the then minister of public works Geoffrey Rippon decided the department had outgrown its grandiose buildings and that they should be flattened.

The Victorian Society's members were prominent among those howling with outrage over both plans. And after fierce debate, both buildings were Grade I-listed and saved.

By the 1980s the mood had changed to the point that Victorian houses were again in vogue. Much of the concrete public housing of the 1960s and 1970s had not stood even a short test of time. There was understandable appreciation for a category of house that looked like it could withstand all but the most determined wrecking ball.

Unsympathetic custodians

"They have a solidity which people enjoy," says architect and Victorian Society campaigner John Scott. "They have a character and a traditional sense which people like. They represent the... point the English terrace house was perfected. It was the absolute pinnacle of Britain at its most confident and technological."

As well as its rock solid build qualities, the Victorian terrace possesses an adaptability that is appreciated by the modern buyer. Renovation to modern tastes is not difficult.

But many owners want at least a taste of former glories - features that have been obscured or obliterated by less sympathetic custodians in the 1950s and onwards.

VICTORIAN TERRACE FEATURES
Terraced houses
Bay windows
Slate roofs
Coloured glass in front door
Cornicing (decorative plaster mouldings)
Decorative patterned brickwork
Sash windows

"In the 1950s it was considered really hideous, [with people] hiding the detailing inside," says property developer and Property Ladder presenter Sarah Beeny.

"Victorian fireplaces went in the skip. In terms of detailing it did go out in a very big way. If you think of Barry Bucknell, the first DIY guru, his main theme was how to get rid of the Victorian detailing in your house. People bought hardboard in vast quantities."

This hardboard went over fireplaces and banisters as the cheapest possible erasure of the past, often leaving them essentially intact for future generations to restore.

"We are now discovering again that this is a very satisfactory building type," says Adam.

"It is very straight-forward and easy to decorate. The terrace is very effective in terms of land use, the internal layout is very simple. Report after report produced by the government shows this is the most effective way of producing high-density housing."

Embellishment mania

The nation's terraced houses were built to cope with massive movements of population to urban areas. Yet again the UK is struggling to cope with burgeoning population and may look for inspiration from the terrace.

"The only bits of Victorian houses that people regularly change are the kitchen and the bathroom," Scott says. "Everything else still fits family life. And you can't say the same for virtually every other era of period of house."

There is certainly great fondness for the features of the originals as well as for an age of architecture where even the most functional of buildings were embellished, water towers with elaborate brick motifs and register offices with Greek columns.

Statue of Sir John Betjeman looking up at the vaulted ceiling of St Pancras station
Sir John Betjeman was instrumental in saving St Pancras

But not everybody is a part of the Victorian love-fest. Adam admits he is "reviled" by other architects for attempting to incorporate historical themes in his buildings.

And Beeny suggests some people can be too slavish in their aping of Victorian style.

"It isn't a glory day of fabulous architecture," she says. "We didn't think that 50 years ago. We have to put it into perspective. Victoriana is very fashionable. If you've got a house of any period it's quite nice to keep the original detailing."

And she sees an amusing irony in houses that were seen as rather temporary at the time being restored in a slavish fashion over a century and a bit later.

But for the campaigners at the Victorian Society and elsewhere it is just a relief to no longer be fighting over major public buildings. The fashion is to respect the Victorians' buildings.

Now the battle has moved on to less well-known structures, threatened with demolition for practical rather than ideological reasons.

And the threat now is often as much an unsympathetic conversion as outright destruction, as architectural historian and long-standing society member Gavin Stamp notes.

Grand houses are split into flats, churches become antique shops and police stations transform into restaurants. But such a change of purpose seems much more welcome than demolition.

And as Stamp insists: "The really good Victorian banks make wonderful bars."


Below is a selection of your comments.

I live in a Victorian house with most of the original features still intact. Craftsmanship, even in late Victorian houses, was of a high order. I am still amazed at how well the doors fit, how robust is the plasterwork, how much care has been taken even with the placing of the floorboards to ensure even gaps. Victorian workmen seemed to take pride in their work. By comparison I still remember a builders' representative at a new development telling me - when I pointed out that the doors on the 'walk-in wardrobe' didn't fit flush - that "you can probably jam in a bit of cardboard to make them fit". Somehow, I think Victorian builders would be turning in their graves at such a remark.
Mark, Reading

While still in the UK, I spent all my life living in Victorian buildings of all types - converted mansion, Tyneside flat, Victorian terrace, Victorian agricultural hovel. The only one that wasn't totally comfortable was the hovel, because the walls were wattle and only about 5 inches thick. However all had wonderful features - fireplaces, cornices, stained glass etc. The best feature is the most endangered however - the sash window. It gets ripped out and replaced with UVPC which weakens the structure of the building and will need to be replaced in 20 years - why won't people get their sash windows renovated (probably more cost effective and just as efficient) and live with the best designed piece of room ventilation ever? They never caught on over here in France, and it is the one thing we miss about our former homes.
Jane Holland, Le Vieil Bauge, France

Victorian houses my not be well insulated but no one seems to take into consideration the amount of energy required to make cement or the kiln energy to fire new bricks. Ripping down Victorian house because they are energy inefficent is madness.
Peter Taylor, London

Peter, Hever, UK - I can only assume you have either never been in a well maintained Victorian home or simply can't appreciate the detail and warmth a beautifully made historical building containts as they are undoubtedly not very abundant where you come from (it certainly isn't in Sydney where I come from). High ceilings, huge rooms, bay windows, beautiful cornicing and detailing etc is distinctly at odds with the 'bare minimum' approach of modern building and why Victorian remains so popular. I'd rather the odd problem with my ye olde plumbing then live in a soulless minimal box. As for cold, damp, pokey, and grimey, if someone is prepared to live in those conditions in a Victorian flat, I'm sure those people would just end up emulating the same conditions in a modern one.
Eddie, London

Peter, all of the terms you use would better describe the cheap and tatty asbestos riddled bungalows of the Melbourne (Australia) suburbs in which I spent my childhood than my Victorian terraced home here in the UK. Just wish I could afford to move into another one like it...
Mike, Wiltshire, England

Having been brought up in a Victorian house and a modern house I know which one I'd opt for. My parents spent tens of thousands of pounds trying to improve a damp, drafty, energy inefficent house and got fed up. Some period houses are absolutely beautiful but the vast majority look run down as the owners cannot afford to keep them properly. To all those middle class terrace living snobs (of which Bristol has loads) who say modern houses all look the same with no character, they should look in their own backyard, rows of identical terraces/semi detached houses. Also modern houses have 6ft of foundations. Victorian houses have soil for foundations.
Emma S, Bristol

Britain is obsessed with the past, for both good and bad reasons, and constructions of the Victorian era are a GOOD reason. Victorian engineering was incredibly over-engineered, with the effect that buildings, bridges, machines all still work or can be made to, so if nothing else we should applaud those structures and monuments that oppose transient values. I'm an avid opponent of nostalgia, so re-creation of Victoriana for shallow reasons is mostly kitsch, but anything that takes from the past, values of strength, civic pride, high aesthetics, practicality and a sense of purpose, should be welcomed, and that which still exists, celebrated and restored.
Richard Want, Kirkby Stephen

Changes in popular architectural preferences don't correspond to any real change in sensibility. They simply reflect the wooden-eyed philistinism of the majority of the population. That's why the 'beloved' Victorian houses still get their brickwork painted, tacky plastic double-glazing slapped in, and crude concrete tiles stuck on top. The only aesthetic principle most people follow is 'old is good' - they'll be going wild for modernist architecture once it's old enough.
Mr Henderson, London UK

Mark, Bexhill, you're right! The Tonight programme hired a team who refurbished a typical Victorian terraced house to BRE EAM (energy-efficiency) "Excellent" standard, installing all 'mod cons' including new kitchen and bathroom, for just 18,000. So yes, Victorian terraces can be made very energy-efficient. And the Victorians didn't build houses on flood-plains!
Candy Spillard, York, UK

It's easy to be sentimental about buildings. As with any time period there were a lot of equally bad buildings for every good one. The reason we don't see many of them is because they we're pulled down. This is the era of back-to-back slums which spawned the need for building regulations and planning lets not forget.

I've lived in two Victorian properties, both have had damp in some form. One has Sash windows which mean we have the heating on almost constantly from autumn to spring (its a rental property and we can't do anything about it). But the decorative features do add character to what would otherwise be another souless property and I definately enjoy the high ceilings (although it probably doesn't help with the heating).
Jon, Bristol

There is greater appreciation for the Victorians because we realise that the architects and builders of today are simply incapable of matching their brio and excellence. For all their self-confidence the Victorians knew that they had something to learn from what went before. They studied and developed the styles for the industrial age and gave our cities grand and loveable public buildings, rich in craftsmanship and meaning. The qualities of a Pugin, or Barry or Scott and their buildings will be recognised long after our modish ennobled architects have flashed in the pan.
Richard, London

Georgian and Victorian architecture are amazing, and they are one of the things that makes Edinburgh such a special place to live. I think that the best and most liveable houses from the past should be preserved, and their insulation can ultimately be improved by putting modern material in the roof and walls, and adding further windows behind the outer windows). I think that modern architecture is pretty horrendous, it's often built of really cheap materials that don't age, and looks either false and chocolate boxey, or has 'modern' features like random glass or metal things, that makes it look horrendous now, and will make it look even worse in ten years time. Architects always feel a need to make things more exciting these days, and it rarely works. Just look at the Spanish airport terminal that is the Scottish parliament...
Charles Hand, Edinburgh, United Kingdom

I live in an 70s 'concrete box' which lacks the one essential quality of a Victorian home - character. Above all, these buildings are aestheticaly pleasing, but are also far more family orientated than a two storey flat in a low rise council block. I say demolish the modernish tat of the 70s and replace with terraced homes inspired by the Victorian architects we love.
Susie, London

We have just purchased a 125-year-old Victorian terrace and have been struck with the underlying quality of much of the structure itself. Most of our sash windows remain in one piece from the original, including hand-made glass, the walls and brickwork are all in good condition and in general, we only require relatively small amounts of structual upkeep. I am highly dubious if one could say the same thing about a modern built, timber/plasterboard structure in 100 yrs time.
Craig Lovelace, Wimbledon, London

Can't help wondering about the effect of a Architectural Darwinism in that our judgment of an era is clouded by the fact that the truly dreadful examples have been got rid of and we end up with ones worth preserving.
Dave Williams, Ambridge

I live in an ex-council mid-1950s house. The Victorian style is much better on the outside, but I would never give up the interior of my 1950s house for a Victorian one (I have lived in one of these). The 1950s interior is easy to modernise, is well set-out, has a nice spacious feel, is warm (ie eco friendly) and child friendly with a decent garden - plus it's solidly built and will last as long as the Victorian ones. Victorian houses can be claustrophobic, draughty, poorly laid-out and full of dangers for little children. Yes - keep Victorian houses but rip out the interior and modernise.
Mark Dennis, Havant, Hants

Coming to the UK from the southern hemisphere where houses are supposed to be poorly insulated (and made of matchsticks BTW), it's a real mystery as to why the English are obsessed with crooked, cold, leaky, damp, pokey, grimey, poorly laid out, jammed together houses... It's as though the UK can't let go of old tat just because it's old, because it's "Victorian", "Edwardian" or can in some other way be linked to a long dead royal personage. Guys, why not keep a few around for old times sake and mow the rest down to give the people who are alive *today* the opportunity to have a better quality of life as a result of living in homes that are actually pleasant to live in.
Peter, Hever, UK

I love my Victorina house. The high ceilings, beautiful fireplaces, cornices, tile work and original doors all add to the atmosphere of living in such a wonderful building. I can't understand how anyone could hate a Victoria house.
Emma, Egham

Our Victorian terrace house has been completely "Bucknelled". We've removed an astonishing amount of hardboard and there are barely any original features left. No slate roof, coloured glass, cornicing or sash windows. I can't understand why people love period houses. Once all the charming features have been removed, you're left with a chilly, dark and poorly planned house. Give me 60s architecture every time!
Francois, Kent, UK

I live in a converted Victorian mansion. If it hadn't been made into flats in the 1980s, it may have been demolished to may way for a characterless eyesore. The sash windows can be drafty, but the high ceilings, beautiful brickwork and cornicing make up for it.
Jane, London

I do not understand why the many condemned terraces in the north are not being refurbished instead - I believe the Tonight programme arranged for one house to be revamped at a very small fraction of the price it would cost to demolish and replace with something newer.
Mark, Bexhill-on-Sea

A quick look around any city centre, but in particular the City of London, shows our post war buildings being culled at an alarming rate. Whilst I agree that to us now many of them look dated we are in danger of creating an architectural void - you'll find many examples of Norman and medieval buildings but nothing between 1950 and 1980.
Derek Elmore, Stevenage, UK

I lived in a Victorian house for about three months last year. It was cold, damp, noisy, and you could hear every footstep from every other flat nearby. The windows did not close and the single glazing spiralled our heating costs. In December we decided to move out and took a former council flat in a big block. True, the front of our house has no coloured glass doors or pretty brick work. But our flat is warm, quiet, spacious, clean and much cheaper than the old one. And we have a large balcony, which is nicer than the towel-sized dark back garden of the old place. I don't see anything admirable in those grotty Victorian terraced houses.
Inga, London

It is maybe a sad indictment of post war designers and council building control that there is a more solid feel and build quality to these old buildings. They more than likely will stand another 100 years and still be around when present day flimsy built houses are being flattened. Just a pity that wood preservation and insulation were not high in the Victorian priorities.
David C Cooper, Aberdeen

I couldn't live in a modern house, they are way too clinical, like a hospital or doctor's surgery. I much prefer the comfort expressed in period detailing, it's what turns a square box into a home, rather than leaving it as a square box. I prefer Victorian, for their love of decoration, but would be equally content with Edwardian, Georgian, Deco, or even older if it still existed. Given it's what we all seem to want, why don't our modern house builders give it to us, instead of building cheap little boxes with paper-thin walls and no character? After all, it's not like they're chasing architectural credibility.
Rob, London, UK

The problem with our addition to 'period' houses is the environmental impact. Our historic housing stock results in inefficient heating, high emissions, and a poor overall sustainability record. By all means keep the unique and distinctive historic buildings; but preserving millions of Victorian terraces into future decades will increasingly make no sense.
Alastair Stevens, Gloucester, UK

I actually think that Victorian Architecture is starting to go out of fashion and good 'Brutalist' stuff from the 60s is coming back in. I'd much rather live in the Barbican than a Victorian conversion. A lot of the internal beauty of Victorian buildings is being ripped out in the vandalism that DIY property developers call conversions when they turn one Victorian flat into 3 or more flats.
Lucio Buffone, London

Compared to the houses they are building today Victorian houses are wonderful. Today's buildings might be energy efficient - but most will be lucky if they're still standing in 50 years time. Victorian houses also have character, high ceilings and features...today's houses are a combination of featureless rooms, with low ceilings and a noticeable absence of any features or character.
JB, UK

In the early 60s, my parents in law stripped out the fireplaces from their terraced house in Swindon. But my husband protested and was allowed to keep his. We sold the house some six years ago to a developer, and when we peeped through the window before it was sold again, we saw that the saved fireplace now took pride of place in the sitting room!
Nicola Turton, Old Basing, England



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