Monday, January 03, 2011

You can't put your arms around a memory

The debate over whether or not they should knock down the childhood home of Ringo Starr has got me thinking about our urge to preserve.

Near where I live in north London is a medium-sized park. In the middle of the park is what was once quite a grand house. Parts of it are sixteenth century but it was extensively remodelled over the years as successive generations of rich merchants tried to make it more grand or more practical. It has a staircase and some murals that are regarded as being of some note. Once the ownership passed to the local council after the war it became, as I dimly remember, a mother and baby clinic, a cafe and the kind of museum where stuffed birds greeted you with puzzled stares. The exterior of the building was half-timbered but it was about as authentically Elizabethan as the front of Liberty's. It was never a thing of beauty.

In 1984 the building was struck by fire. The council wanted to demolish the building because it was no longer safe and their responsibility. Preservation organisations sprang into action to resist. English Heritage gave it Grade Two Listing. Scaffolding was erected to keep the building up and a fence erected all around to make sure that no over-adventurous kids could get near.

The scaffolding is still there. The council proposed changing the building's Covenants, which were laid down in 1903, to allow some commercial use of a restored house. Whitbread were interested in it being a family restaurant. The local residents objected, claiming that the amount of traffic such a place would attract would make a busy area even busier. In 2003 the building was entered for the BBC programme "Restoration"in which Griff Rhys Jones invited the public to choose which of a number of proposed projects was most deserving. It lost.

In the twenty-six years since the fire all manner of proposals have been examined and discarded. Grants have been secured and very often passed on to professional consultancies. (Nowadays if you want to make a bid for lottery funding you have to hire a professional to do it.) Many of the people who led the original campaign to preserve the building have retired. Some must have died.

The latest initiative comes from the Mayor Of London's Office and involves £500,000 being granted to pay for preparatory and public consultation work about the new proposals which are a combination of restoration of the house with some form of sheltered accommodation in the stable block. If this gets the go-ahead they can apparently find a further £5,000,000 to pay for it. God knows how much further cost has already been incurred holding this building up since 1984.

There's nobody fonder of history than I am. I'm no fan of the wrecking ball. I'm a member in good standing of the National Trust. But if a small attraction like this, which is only ever likely to be appreciated by the small number of people who live locally, can only be maintained by calling upon a fund from a form of central government (either national or local) then it may be time to either do it the way the Victorians did it when they first built our parks - by raising a public subscription among the people who really care - or just letting it slip away.

The Housing Minister today said that in some people's eyes Ringo's house is "a culturally important building". English Heritage have described the house near me as "historically important" and "architecturally unique". These are the kind of baggy phrases that could be extended to justify the preservation of just about anything. In this country nothing is so guaranteed to get the public tear ducts going as the threat of something being removed. Stopping the wrecking ball is the work of a day. Deciding what to do instead can go on forever.


  1. Ah yes, Broomfield House. As well as the stuffed birds and the stuffed fock (as my 5-year-old son insisted with inexorable logic, one fock, two fox) there was a beehive inside the house behind glass, and the lad watched bees coming and going for ages. But they should probably knock it down nevertheless.

  2. There are buildings like this all over London. I remember, a few years ago, walking along some kind of arterial road on the outskirts of the city. All of a sudden I was in the grounds of an old manor house, except that now the house was a run-down cafe with graffiti on the walls, and the former gardens were ratty, beer can-strewn parkland. I thought: What is the point of this? It’s not valued. Conversely I don’t want to lose these places if the alternative is a block of flats that looks identical to the block of flats around the corner.

    The redevelopment of the east end of London has been an interesting combination of demolition and refurbishment, with warehouses re-purposed as apartments and docks transformed into nature reserves. I think that it works quite well in places, straddling the desire to preserve the past with the needs of contemporary Londoners.

    When I get up to the city on Friday I’ll probably take the DLR over to the Royal Victoria Docks. I like to look across the water at the derelict Spillers’ Millennium Mills and its relatively smaller brown brick sibling - The Hovis Premier Mill. The best case scenario for these enormous buildings, with their peeling paint and rows of blown-out windows, is partial demolition (the Hovis mill will definitely go) followed by redevelopment into luxury flats. It’s this compromise that will allow them to live on.

  3. Surely the most striking recent example of what we might term the Edmund Hillary preservation strategy ("Why? Because it's there) is the "fight" to "save" another "key piece of history"*- the Catford prefabs. Suddenly, buildings whose very reason for being there in the first place was an expedient, transient one are considered to be worthy of a pass into perpetuity.

    (*The vocabulary used in these instances is also probably worth a blog in itself.)

  4. Backwards, I for one would be sad to see those mills go. My grandfather was a senior electrician there, responsible for all the mills' machinery.

    In the late 60s and early 70s, I was sometimes taken to pick him up from work if he had to do weekend shifts. He would take me round the buildings and the docks, proud of his workplace.

    Now this means that any flight I take to or from City airport are filled with a sense of nostalgia. And a real connection with the history of the place.

  5. Problem is that listing buildings - as in, putting them on the protected list, not buildings which list, like the Tower of Pisa - can and does make it a lot harder to renovate them, even sympathetically. The rules designed with all good intent to protect buildings can see them fall into disrepair and eventually decay.

    Perhaps the most notable example is Battersea Power Station. After closure in 1983 it was bought with the intention (again, well-meaning) of turning it into an industrial heritage theme park, but the owners ran out of cash – unhelpfully, after removing the roof. Twenty years of rain haven't helped, and now structural engineers have differing opinions as to whether the iconic towers can even be saved at all. There's another proposal on the table at the minute, but the costs are eye-watering (£4bn) and seem contingent on the construction of the first-ever privately-funded extension of the Tube, at costs approaching another half-billion.

    That's the most likely future for most at-risk buildings: receiving private funding, on the promise of making the backers their money back. If there's two ramshackle former beauties near you, the one more likely to be saved is the one which tempts Tesco. (The other will go to hell in a very slow handcart, perhaps until a lump of it falls onto a passer-by.) The public and the state still have the will and the wit to save buildings, but they don't have the wedge.