Saturday, 24 September 2011

Nos. 70 & 71, High Street

One of the more unusual buildings that remain in Exeter's High Street, the elaborate facade of Nos. 70 and 71 is nowhere near as old as it might first appear.

Either side of the oculus window that sits high up on the third floor is the date 1905, the year in which the building was completed. Nos. 70 and 71 stand next to the tower of St Petrock's church. Prior to 1905 the north face of the church was completely obscured by several buildings which had been constructed against it. This had the effect of narrowing the width of the High Street and causing slight problems with the movement of traffic. In the early 20th century it was decided to demolish these buildings as well as the properties that stood within the immediate vicinity of the church. The single building known as Nos. 70 and 71 was a product of this Edwardian redevelopment.

I've never seen a good and clear image of the building which previously stood on the site of the present structure. Fortunately a description of it does survive in a 1931 article by Harbottle Reed which appeared in a volume of the Devonshire Association's journal. Entitled "The Demolition of Ancient Buildings of Exeter During the Last Half Century", the article provides interesting but frustratingly brief details of some of Exeter's lost historically interesting buildings from between 1880 to 1930.

According to Reed the property that occupied the site before its demolition in 1903 was "a very fine specimen of early 16th century timber work". It must've once been a prestigious house given its very central location on the High Street and next to the church of what was formerly one of Exeter's richest parishes. The interior "had been sumptuous with linen fold door panels and moulded framing". Apart from the mention of a solid oak staircase leading up to the attic and some oak doors this is, disappointingly, the full extent of Reed's comments. Presumably the oak panelling was ripped out and sold off when the building was demolished.

The property which replaced it in 1905 is notable primarily for the free Baroque style of its decorated facade, constructed entirely from brick with stone dressings. Most impressive of all are the two-storey canted bay windows surmounted by beautiful swan neck pediments under which run sections of egg and dart moulding.

Set within each of the four pediments are panels of highly-intricate carved foliage, including oak leaves and acorns, and a shield. Carved in relief on the second floor shields are the numbers 70 and 71. The shields on the first floor carry two separate monograms: CM and WM with the letters intertwined*. Pilasters with decorated capitals frame the facade on either side. Someone put an enormous amount of effort and money into creating this facade and in June 2000 Nos. 70 and 71 were awarded much-deserved Grade II listed status. (It should be added that the current property wasn't inspected internally prior to it receiving its Grade II status. It's possible that elements of the older building remain on the site. Its neighbour, No. 72, although much altered, still contains traces of its late-16th century origins.) Nos. 70 and 71 narrowly escaped destruction in 1942 when the corner of the High Street and South Street was bombed.

*I don't know the identities of either CM or WM. I would think that they're connected with the person who financed the rebuilding. I'll try and find out and re-edit this post accordingly.


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