Sunday, 11 December 2011

Nos. 61, 62 & 63, High Street

The current building on the site left only dates to 1976 and occupies what was once three separate plots: Nos. 61, 62 and 63. It sits in a prominent location on the corner of the High Street with Broadgate, the ancient ceremonial entrance way into the Cathedral Close and the site of the largest and most ornate of the Close's medieval gatehouses. (The Broad Gate itself was demolished between 1824 and 1825.)

The city council's conservation report from 2002 describes No. 63 as "a rebuild of a listed building demolished in 1976". The report continues: "Stretching across three historic frontages, it is built from pale stone with the windows being simple, rectangular dark brown single panes of glass. A three storey oriel window on the corner and a similar window close to the junction with No. 60 provide some interest".

Unfortunately I don't know much about the listed building which was demolished in the 1970s. I don't know when it was listed or why it was listed, and this section of the High Street seems to have been one of the least photographed areas of the city centre! The conservation report mentions "three curved bays at ground floor level reflecting the earlier plot widths" which can be seen on the High Street facade of the current building. They conveniently divide the High Street frontage into thirds.

The image right is a detail from an aerial view of the city c1930. It shows the previous building on the site, highlighted in red. Its most distinctive feature was probably a two storey oriel corner window on top of which was a squat lead dome. The facade was made of brick alternating with bands of stone with a stone parapet running across the top. Clearly the facade was all built at the same time and, from the street at least, there was little sign of the three older plots mentioned in the conservation report.

But hidden behind the parapet can be seen three hipped roofs of quite different sizes. I think it's probable that Nos. 61, 62 and 63 were indeed three completely separate buildings and that sometime around the end of the 19th century their frontages were all replaced with the brick and stone facade shown in the photograph leaving the older cores remaining intact behind. This happened throughout Exeter on a number of buildings and it's one reason why the fabric of the city was in fact much older than it often appears in pre-war photographs (Nos. 17 & 18 North Street are classic examples). This might well account for why the buildings had received listed status prior to their demolition in 1976.

The listed buildings were badly affected by fire in the mid-1970s. Photographs taken of the rear of the buildings after the fire showed that the houses were of a relatively light-weight timber-framed construction. To me this suggests a date of between 1660 and 1700 which would be in keeping with other Exeter houses built in the same period which are of a similar construction. (In July 1778, in the cellar of a house belonging to Mr Upham "situated in the High Street at Exeter, at the corner of Broad-gate" workmen uncovered five superbly cast little bronze statues of Roman gods. Upham's house was probably either at No. 63 or at what is now Nos. 65 & 67 on the opposite corner of Broadgate, although No. 197 on the other side of the High Street has also been suggested.)

Unfortunately no other investigation of the ruins was possible and the remains were demolished without further record. The fire-damaged structures were removed and the replacement building now stands on the site. As a piece of Modernist in-fill it is admittedly very successful. It retains a sense of scale which relates well to the surrounding properties and it has hardly dated at all. The subtle oriel windows are an attractive feature which break up the monotony of the plain facade, and the chamfered corner and the pale stone mirror the early-20th century Neo-Classical bank at Nos. 65 & 67 on the opposite corner. It is preferable to the repellent 1960s in-fill building at Nos. 50 to 52 or anything in the recent redeveloped Princesshay area.

The postcard above left from c1910 shows the view up the pre-war High Street with the now-demolished building at Nos. 61, 62 and 63 highlighted in red. The densely-packed housing and varied street frontages continued in a remarkable, almost unbroken line from this point up to the end of Sidwell Street well over a kilometre away. Unfortunately the vast majority of it has since been destroyed through wartime bombing and post-war demolition. The photograph below shows the entrance into Broadgate to the right with the High Street stretching away to the left.


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