Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Nos. 19 & 20, North Street

Nos. 19 and 20 North Street were two of the most prestigious Jacobean timber-framed townhouses in Exeter. Having survived since the early 1600s, they were both demolished for road-widening c1890. A publication called the Archaeological Review mentioned in 1889 that "No. 20 North Street is going to be pulled down for the purpose of widening the street", and the house seems to have been destroyed shortly afterwards.

The image left © Devon County Council shows both properties c1889, just prior to their demolition. Nos. 19 and 20 were probably two individual houses built at the same time as a matching pair, the unity of the facades being disrupted by additions made in the 18th or 19th century to the front of No. 19. Stylistic similarities show that the facade was certainly constructed over the fronts of both properties at the same time. Building two houses as a pair was a fairly common occurrence in Exeter during the 16th and 17th centuries and was something of an Exeter speciality.

In 1890, both houses consisted of five floors and a cellar and towered over the narrow street outside. Projecting out from the first floor of No. 20 was a spectacular five-sided oriel window, supported underneath by nine carved oak corbels depicting various beasts, including unicorns, and grotesque figures. No. 19 almost certainly had a similar oriel window when originally built which, by at least 1827, had been replaced by a simpler bow-fronted window. The facade of the first and second floors of both Nos. 19 and 20 was subdivided vertically by the inclusion of moulded oak columns, six sets of two. On the second floor both houses had matching six-light oriel windows, again supported on carved oak corbels, with another pair of oriel windows on the third floor. The whole arrangement was finished on the fourth floor by yet another four-light oriel window set into the gable, although by 1890 the fourth floor window of No. 19 had been replaced with a simpler semi-circular window.

At the time of their demolition they probably exceeded even the Chevalier inn on Fore Street as examples of their kind. In fact they were probably the finest timber-framed frontages still left in city.

The architect and antiquarian, James Crocker, described and sketched both properties for his 1886 publication "Sketches of Old Exeter" left. He was justifiably scathing in his criticism of the alterations which had been carried out to the windows of No. 19: "It is to me", he wrote, "a source of the greatest marvel that any person, however ignorant or indifferent, could persuade themselves to substitute the hideous bow window on the first floor, for what they must have destroyed in order to find a place for their own wretched handiwork".

The magnificent array of oriel windows, the decorative use of oak columns and sculpted woodwork, and the sheer enormity of the building itself, indicates that these was once the exceptional properties of exceptionally wealthy citizens, probably merchants involved in the lucrative woollen cloth trade. As far as I know there are no records of what remained inside, but it's possible that decorative plasterwork ceilings, panelling and ornate fireplaces remained even as late as the 1890s.

Had it survived it would rank today as one of the finest buildings of its type in the west of England. It appears that No. 19 was sold to the City Council in 1894 for £600. (The City Council either had to wait and buy properties as and when they came on the market, or make the owner an offer. Once bought and in the Council's possession it was then just a matter of demolishing it.) By 1900, both buildings had been completely demolished. A similar fate befall No. 38 North Street as late as 1972.

Some fragments of the houses do remain today. The five-sided oriel window from No. 20, along with a few other fragments of carved oak, was relocated into a new building at No. 229 High Street in the 1930s right. Since only one window was salvaged the other window installed into the facade of No. 229 is a copy, although it's difficult to tell which is which. A photograph of No. 19 North Street can be seen here. No. 19 is the tall house with the semi-circular window in the gable. No. 20 had already been demolished when the photograph was taken. The two Jacobean houses to the left of No. 19 are Nos. 17 and 18 shown prior to the destruction of their facades.

Other than that, not a trace of these two buildings remain. They were replaced with two brick-built houses of no architectural merit (the two properties to the far left in the photograph below). It would be interesting to know if the city authorities had any qualms about the destruction of Nos. 19 and 20, whether there was any hand-wringing or soul-searching, or whether, as I suspect is likely, the houses were regarded as nothing more than an inconvenient obstacle to the city's development.


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