Sunday, 26 September 2010

No. 226, High Street

Considering its prominence on the High Street, surprisingly little is known about the building which once stood behind this towering Tudor facade. The postcard left shows No. 226 in the centre with the mid-17th century facade of No. 227 High Street to the right.

It's not even known for certain whether the building was originally a single house or a pair of matching houses. Matching pairs of houses were a much more frequent occurrence in the city during the 1500s and 1600s (Nos. 41 & 42 High Street are two surviving examples). If it was constructed as a single residence then it would've been on a scale almost unprecedented in mid-16th century Exeter, although there were exceptions: No. 1 Cathedral Close, a single house from c1596 with a facade of almost comparable dimensions has a similar arrangement of windows on the first and second floors. However the confined plot of No. 1 Cathedral Close resulted in a much smaller building internally.

Another piece of evidence in favour of it being a single large house comes from Exeter's pre-eminent 20th historian, W. G. Hoskins. Hoskins believed that the property was constructed for Thomas Prestwood in 1567. Prestwood was a merchant as well as Exeter's mayor in 1544 and 1550. The idea that Prestwood had an enormous house built for himself as a reflection of his personal wealth and social status is certainly plausible. Unfortunately the later history of the property has meant that key questions regarding its original layout will probably remain unanswered.

The postcard right c1900 shows No. 226 highlighted in red. The unrestored upper two floors retain their rendered appearance.

Whether it was a single house or a matching pair, when completed in the 16th century it would've been enriched with some of the most opulent interiors in Exeter. The fact that there is no documentary evidence for these interiors suggests that the property had been modernised by the 19th century. Even the Victorians liked to marvel over plasterwork ceilings and oak panelling before ripping them out, and yet there is silence about No. 226. If it had ever been two houses then by the end of the 18th century it had been knocked into just one. In 1781 it was purchased by Robert Trewman, the founder of the 'Exeter Flying Post', and the newspaper was printed from No. 226 until 1862. It's possible that Trewman himself was responsible for a number of the alterations.

At the beginning of the 20th century substantial renovations began, especially to the facade. Work started on the top two floors and, according to Peter Thomas in his book 'Aspects of Exeter', the workmen made such a mess of it that in 1907 another firm was brought in to complete the job. Westcott, Austin & White seemed to do a better job on the first and second floors, removing each of the timbers, cleaning it and repairing it, or replacing it with old timber taken from within the house itself.

When the old render was removed from beneath the oriel windows some original strap-work painted decoration was discovered dating from the time of the building's construction in the 1560s. This too was restored. Unfortunately the insertion of the new shop front, which was also added in 1907, saw the lower part of the painted decoration cut in half, but the most impressive feature of the facade, its canted bay windows, were treated sympathetically. The row of windows which run across the entire facade, supported on brackets carved with crouching beasts left, on both the first and second floors are exceptional.

The property narrowly escaped destruction during the Exeter Blitz in 1942 and was officially granted Grade II* listed status in 1953. And yet, despite the fact that it was one of Exeter's finest surviving Tudor frontages, the city council decided in 1958 to demolish it and its neighbour at No. 227 to allow the High Street to be widened. The building had actually been purchased by the city council in order to facilitate its destruction, an action which prompted the local newspaper to run a cartoon with the caption: "Come to Exeter and Watch the Natives Pull It Down". (The cartoon could've been run many times during the course of the 20th century). The plans created uproar and the idea was shelved, but in 1959 the demolition was back on the agenda. The building was reprieved yet again until 1960 when the local authority pressed harder to have Nos. 226 and 227 removed. Being a listed building meant that the city council had to apply to the government for their removal. The government acquiesced to the council's plan and both properties, like so many before them, seemed doomed. The row rumbled on into 1962 with groups like the Exeter Civic Society led by W. G. Hoskins arguing against the demolition.

The photograph right © Devon County Council shows No. 226 shortly after its restoration. A new shopfront has been added but its ground floor remains intact.

It wasn't until 1969 that the city council deigned to allow the building to remain, sort of. It is blatantly obvious that if it hadn't been for local opposition to the plans then neither No. 226 or No. 227 would still exist today. (The same is true of a number of buildings in Exeter which survived the war only to be threatened by the city council's bulldozer afterwards. The Higher Market would've been razed to the ground if it weren't for the Exeter Civic Society, a group which, according to the archaeologist Aileen Fox, was regarded by the city council as "an ineffectual nuisance"). Ignorance of such a magnitude is never anything less than breathtaking.

The historic frontage was reprieved but the rest of the building wasn't. In the early 1970s everything except for the facade was demolished without any archaeological record being made of what was destroyed. (No. 227 received the same treatment). Although it's clear that there were no visible remnants of the Tudor interiors surviving at the time it's impossible to say what actually was demolished. The cellar was filled in, the remaining walls were completely removed and replaced with a modern structure, but even worse was to befall the ground floor.

Until the 1970s the ground floor had an attractive shop front which had been added in 1907. Following the demolition of the rest of the building the ground floor was completely removed and the surviving timber facade was jacked up onto steel girders to allow pedestrians to walk unimpeded underneath, like a 20th century butterwalk. If that all wasn't bad enough the pre-war properties on either side of No. 226 and No. 227 were both demolished and replaced with modern red-brick structures. The buildings opposite, including No. 37 High Street, of a similar vintage, were destroyed in the 1950s, and today neither No. 226 or No. 227 can be enjoyed as part of a satisfying historical cityscape. They now stand alone amidst a sea of second-rate red-brick banality and because of this, despite their genuine antiquity, look remarkably like Tudorbethan imitations.

So what actually does survive of No. 226? The windows on the first and second floor, although restored, are authentically Elizabethan, as are the decorated panels. The timbering on the upper two floors is totally fake but there's a good chance that the original fabric of the house still exists beneath to a depth of perhaps 12ft. The complete removal of the ground floor had dire consequences for the overall impression of the facade. Without the vertical plane of the shopfront the splendid effect wrought by the oversailing upper floors has been totally lost. It is essentially a 1970s building with an authentic, if restored, Tudor facade pinned to the front. Despite the massive alterations the building retains its Grade II* listed status, primarily because of its magnificent windows.


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