Buildings in distress
© Sunday Times
The amenity societies are feisty pressure groups, led by polemical idealists who fight to protect ancient buildings from destruction by land-hungry developers.
Members are rarely oddballs who want to shun electricity and dress up in doublet and hose, but ordinary homeowners who happen to love one architectural period, and enjoy tapping into a wealth of technical and aesthetic literature and meeting kindred sprits at conferences and courses. “People often mistakenly assume we’re right wing, and avidly pro-establishment,” explains Richard Seedhouse of the Victorian Society. “In fact we’re fairly outspoken campaigners who have far more in common with Greenpeace than Thatcherism.”
Basically charities, the societies also perform a statutory function for English Heritage and CADW, who govern the administration of listed buildings throughout England and Wales respectively, and also work for local authorities throughout the land. “I strongly believe we are abused by government,” says Andrew Plumridge, of the Garden History Society. “Every time there’s an application for listed building consent or a change to a listed building, amenity societies have to undertake a great deal of work in order to advise government agencies on the suitability of the scheme, and we get practically nothing for it. Frankly, the amenity societies underpin the whole of the planning system in this country, so why should we continually have to go out with a begging bowl?”
The oldest organisation is The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), founded by William Morris in 1877, and responsible for buildings that predate the other organisations. Morris hated the Victorian obsession with modernising ancient buildings and fought to maintain their original craftsmanship, establishing the present official SPAB view that the building matters more than each generation of its occupants.
“Old buildings were built in a particular way, and trying to redo them with modern methods and materials just doesn’t work,” says ex-army officer Simon Bird, who is renovating a house in Wales. “On a recent SPAB ‘homeowners’ course I attended there was a fascinating mixture of people: a couple of commercial builders, several elderly widows and some quite wealthy folk who wanted to understand their builders’ techniques. I made some excellent contacts, there was frenetic cross fertilisation of ideas, and swapping experiences was terrific fun.” Technical SPAB courses typically include ‘lost’ artisan skills, such as thatching and cob wall repair.
In 1951, Sir John Betjeman, Nikolaus Pevsner and The Countess of Ross founded the Victorian Society in the drawing room of the Countess’s home, Linley Samborne House, 18 Stafford Terrace, London. Since it is such a perfect example of the period the house, now owned by the society, is used as a permanent museum. “It was built in 1860 as part of a speculative development by the Phillimore Estate, and the Sambornes decorated it in the latest aesthetic style,” explains the curator, Rena Suleiman. “There aren’t many houses around now that show the evolution of a house through four successive generations. We’ve amassed 150,000 documents, including letters and bills, which give a unique picture of middle-class Victorian family life.”
The Georgian group, founded in 1937, campaigns against the neglect, maltreatment and destruction of Georgian architecture, parks and gardens and promotes the appreciation and enjoyment of these. “Our ideals aren’t quite so rigid as those of SPAB,” says secretary Neil Burton. “Membership rises when we get publicity for a cause we’re fighting. There’s also a steady stream of short-stay members who move into a Georgian home and want to use our resources. Over 40% of all listed houses in this country date from our era.”
The Ancient Monuments Society protects and studies all buildings of all ages, and is run in association with the charity ‘Friends of Friendless churches’, who now own 28 historic churches and chapels that had been within a whisker of demolition. “The churches we own are all redundant, and cut off without a maw by the church for economic reasons,” says secretary Matthew Saunders. “But we believe they are too historically and architecturally important to be lost. Two of our churches are used as studios by professional artists, one of whom, Benjamin Finn, creates beautiful stained glass work at ...... in Essex.”
Even relatively recent buildings can merit listing, and their welfare is protected by the 20th century society. The Council for British Archaeology are a statutory consultee when anyone applies to demolish a listed building, since they focus on the building as a totality, the different phases of its history and the archaeological evidence of which is contained within the building itself.
Historically important gardens are registered, not listed, since landscapes are constantly evolving. “We’re aiming to preserve the fabric of parks and gardens - for example trees and earthworks,” says David Lambert of the Garden History Society. “Some of the earthworks in landscaped parks are very subtle, very gentle changes in the level used as a way to disguise drives or to create vistas.”
Some people become so enraptured by a particular period that they almost get lost in a private fantasy world. Dennis Severs’ passion for Georgian decor inspired him to create fantastic Hogarthian tableaux in the candle-lit rooms of his eighteenth-century home, which he opened as a living museum, complete with background noises of footsteps, opening doors and the smells of 1730 (although two of the rooms have Victorian decor). Television presenter, architectural historian and author Dan Cruikshank has also recreated authentic Georgian interiors within his own (private) Spitalfields home nearby. Cruikshank has mixed his own paint colours, basing these on William Kent interiors, and insisted on every item being hand-crafted , since machine made mouldings belong to a later period. He also co-founded the Spitalfields Trust, a charity that buys derelict buildings, renovates them and sells them on to suitable buyers. Another charity, SAVE, acts as a dating agency to match prospective owners with suitable buildings in need of rescuing.
“Because I am into heritage, I believe very much in the ideals of SPAB and all it stands for,” enthuses stockbroker Tim Lowe, who is halfway through a major restoration project on his large Welsh house. “At the same time I think it’s important not to be too precious, because there ‘s a lot of built heritage around us that needs new uses, and the vital thing is to save the structure. To save old buildings you sometimes need the softly softly approach. For instance if you pressure a recalcitrant farmer into making expensive repairs to a listed barn, he’ll probably just dynamite the place.”