Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Lost History of No. 72, High Street

No. 72 on the High Street left is a bit of a puzzle. It's not a nationally listed building although it is listed on a local level. The city council's conservation report of 2002 describes the current facade thus: "Its narrow frontage is surmounted by a gable and the walls are white and rendered, and lined out to replicate stone. The first and second floors have a single sashed window with, at second floor height, an elaborate modillion cornice which lies just below the spring of the gable. The date is probably late 19th century". This dating is almost certainly incorrect and the story of the building is a lot more complex than the simple description suggests.

In 1905 a number of properties surrounding St Petrock's church were either rebuilt or heavily modified. These included Nos. 65 & 67, Nos. 70 & 71 (to the immediate left of No. 72), No. 72 itself as well as Nos. 73 & 74 on the corner of the High Street and South Street. But did No. 72 really only date from the late-19th century or even from 1905? The doubts begin with a sketch of c1827 by Arthur Glennie in the Westcountry Studies Library. This sketch shows No. 72 with an almost identical facade to the one it still has today, with the same lining in the render, the same cornice, the same single sash windows and the same small window in the gable.

The only reasonable explanation for this is that when the road-widening took place in 1905 the front of the property was taken back by a couple of metres before a replica of the old facade was placed over the front. I can't think what else could've happened. The High Street certainly was widened in 1905 as it ran past the front of the building. (Something similar occurred at No. 38 North Street in 1899 when the entire mid-17th century facade was removed and then replaced after the road had been widened. But that was one of the finest of its type in the city and the owner himself was responsible for its reattachment. Perhaps the owner of No. 72 was equally determined to retain the appearance of his property.)

In fact No. 72, High Street dated to c1600 and was a late-Elizabethan house of some prestige. It undoubtedly was affected by the 1905 redevelopment too and proof comes from Harbottle Reed, a local architect and historian, in his 1931 article 'The Demolition of Ancient Buildings of Exeter'. Although thin on facts, Reed included a detailed drawing right of what he called the 'south elevation' of No. 72 prior to its demolition in January 1905.

It seems that the south elevation, which was at what Reed believed to be the rear of the house, was affected by the rebuilding of the north elevation on the High Street. But not all of the south facade was rebuilt as a photograph from the late 1950s shows that at least the upper two stories retained sash windows, probably installed in the early 19th century. Perhaps only the ground floor and first floor were affected. Either way, Reed's illustration shows the high status of No. 72 when it was first built c1600. Unusually for Exeter, the ground floor was made of stone, inset into which was a four-light mullioned window. On the first floor was what must've been the property's finest room as it contained a ten-light mullioned and transomed window which ran across the entire width of the house. Everything shown in Reed's illustration was apparently demolished in 1905.

(The photograph left from Thomas Sharp's 1946 publication 'Exeter Phoenix' shows an aerial view of the corner of South Street and the High Street c1930. The extensive Globe inn is highlighted in purple. The two accommodation blocks which comprised No. 72 are highlighted in red. The clear gap between them was the location of the small central courtyard. The northern block overlooked the High Street, its altered facade appearing at the top of this post. The southern block's original half-timbered facade still overlooked the rear court of the Globe inn. The tower of the church of St Mary Major is visible to the right.)

The trail then goes cold until 04 May 1942 when the Exeter Blitz decimated large areas of the city and destroyed the old Globe inn which had stood in the Cathedral Yard at the rear of No. 72. When the gutted shell of the inn was cleared away something remarkable was revealed at the back of No. 72: another intact half-timbered facade with a stone-built ground floor from c1600 facing in the same direction as the one which Reed recorded as having been demolished in 1905. Prior to 1942 there was a narrow passageway running between the Globe inn and the half-timbered facade and the facade had been almost completely obscured by the inn's buildings. (The back of the late-medieval property which once belonged to Thomas Elyot at No. 73 on the High Street was hidden from view at the same time. An 1839 drawing of the back of Thomas Elyot's house shows the left-side of the half-timbered facade which was exposed after the bombing raid of 1942.)

The newly-revealed facade was four storeys high with a gabled roof. The first floor jettied out over the ground floor, which was constructed of stone. Inset into the first floor was a six-light window. It was built on exactly the same alignment as No. 72. The photograph right © Devon County Council dates to the early 1950s and shows the facade, highlighted in red, which was once hidden behind the Globe inn. To the left is the back of No. 73, High Street, formerly the site of Thomas Elyot's house which was rebuilt in 1845. Another photograph from the 1950s shows that the facade was part of a separate block with a gap between itself and No. 72 on the High Street, and this is probably the clinching evidence.

I think this is the story of No. 72, High Street: it was built on a deep but narrow plot of land for a wealthy merchant in the very centre of the city at the end of the 16th century or in the first years of the 17th century. It followed a plan which was once fairly widespread throughout Exeter but which can now be seen in only a handful of examples (e.g. No 18, North Street). This plan consisted of a front block, containing perhaps a shop on the ground floor with a parlour or hall on the first floor and other chambers above. This front block opened out onto the High Street and still exists in some form as the current building. It was the south elevation of this front block which Harbottle Reed recorded as having been demolished in 1905, its northern facade already having been remodelled prior to 1827. But behind the front block was a back block, separated by a small courtyard and all part of the same building. The front block and the back block were connected by a timber-framed gallery. The back block would've contained the kitchen on the ground floor with further accommodation on the floors above and, crucially, it was the south elevation of the back block which was revealed in 1942 following the destruction of the Globe inn. I don't think there is any other realistic way of explaining the evidence.

The aerial view left shows the single block which now comprises No. 72. The High Street facade is to the north. What I believe was the early-17th century layout of the property, two blocks of accommodation connected via a gallery, is highlighted in red. This arrangement appears to have survived until the 1960s. The largely false wall which now hides the backs of No. 70 & 71 and No. 72, High Street is highlighted in purple.

What happened next defies belief. During the 1950s the newly-revealed half-timbered facade from the early 1600s, which had survived the English Civil War and the Industrial Revolution, and which had so narrowly escaped obliteration in 1942, was itself destroyed by Exeter City Council to create a squalid pedestrianised entrance into the Cathedral Yard from South Street. The facade was ripped down and replaced with a modern red-brick wall as the depth of the back block was reduced to widen the opening into the cathedral precinct. To disguise this new brick wall a second, largely false wall was erected, built from concrete blocks with a hexagonal motif below. No. 73, High Street, which had replaced Thomas Elyot's house in 1845 and which had also survived the war intact, fared even worse and was demolished completely. The post-war entrance into the precinct is described in the city council's conservation report as a "major disappointment". And so it is.

It is impossible to understand the mentality behind the decision to destroy the south elevation of No. 72 in the 1950s, especially given the widespread destruction of the city during the air-raid of 04 May 1942. It was nothing more than the blatant vandalising of the city's cultural heritage. The reduced portion of the back block and the remains of the front block on the High Street have since been united under a single pitched roof, removing any external trace of the block and gallery arrangement, and I have no idea if anything of historical or architectural interest remains within what is now a single structure.


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