Monday, 29 November 2010

Building Storeys: The Work of A Buildings Historian

ELLEN: HOUSE HISTORIAN. Read post below and see link for further reading.

Building Storeys: The Work of A Buildings Historian

The Work of A Buildings Historian

Park Street, Mayfair 1901 (Survey of London)
I came to researching historic buildings by accident. All I knew was that I wanted to work with old buildings and play a part in their conservation. I had always loved history; I had always been interested in old buildings and always enjoyed the process of research. But it was only when I studied for a post-graduate in building conservation at the Architectural Association that I realised that there could be a career incorporating all these elements.

I started at the deep end, researching buildings for a firm of conservation architects. I was and am ostensibly an historian but my post-graduate in building conservation gave me that depth of knowledge required by architectural professionals.

Today my clients include architects, property developers, planning consultants as well as private home owners. The latter call on my services for many reasons; mostly just to find out the story of their house, but at other times it is to support a planning application or help settle a boundary dispute.

A house historian will look at dates, people and any stories surrounding the house and occupants. In my work, I also look at what was on the site before construction, who built it, how was it constructed, for whom and why? What was the building used for, what alterations had been made in the decades / centuries since construction? I scrutinise architects’ plans, identify alterations and piece together how the building has evolved. This kind of research aids the restoration, conservation and building process. For instance it can determine the historical importance and relevance of architectural features and whether they can or cannot be altered or removed. Particularly if a building is listed, an in depth knowledge of the building’s fabric is crucial.

One example of my work involved a house in St John’s Wood that had been lived in by a famous artist in the 19th century. It was assumed he had designed it himself and had had the entire building built in 1888. However, my research involving visual inspection and later documentary searches revealed the grand late Victorian house was built partially around a more humble but equally fascinating structure dating to 1825. The conservation / architectural result was that the intended extension had to be modified but in the end the owner achieved what he wanted without disturbing the earlier fabric of the building.

Another example was, a homeowner who had purchased a listed house in Cumberland Terrace in Regent’s Park, built in 1828 and wanted a swimming pool dug in the basement. The opinion was that the listed status was mainly for its external structure and appearance and that the house had been heavily altered internally and therefore the pool should be permitted. However, research revealed the basement floor to be virtually untouched since the late Georgian period and so the owner had to rethink his pool plans. My work is balanced between wanting to conserve the historic fabric of buildings and trying to achieve what the client wants. Ultimately, though, I can only report the facts and from that decisions can be made.

Cumberland Terrace 1938 (Survey of London)
While I work all over the country, I have often been asked to research a Georgian or Victorian townhouse in Belgravia or Mayfair with a view to converting the building back into a single residence (having been converted into flats in the 1950s). In these instances, I would be required to find out the original layout of the building in order to reinstate the plan form, its walls, doorways, windows and sometimes floor levels.

When I research the history of a house I begin by inspecting the premises and getting a feel for the structure. I will then source information at local libraries and archives e.g. maps, parish records, manorial records, electoral rolls, census returns and archived photographs of the building site or area. Depending on the building, a visit to the National Archives at Kew may be needed. In the case of an in depth architectural search, I always visit the Royal Institute of British Architects Library as well.

From these example sources, and many others I call on, I can build and write a history of the building, for the architects or owners. I often liken it to doing a jigsaw puzzle (but without a picture to guide you). Each piece is important, but it is only when you put them all together that the full historical picture of the house is finally revealed.

(This blog first appeared on

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