Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Nos. 212 to 219, High Street

Accurately described by Hugh Meller as "wretched" and "an inept lump, crudely detailed with ugly red bricks and massive concrete shafts that bear no relation to its neighbours", Nos. 212 to 219 is an intrusive presence on Exeter's High Street.

The city council's conservation report tellingly describes it as "assertive". The fact that it was constructed in what was allegedly a conversation area and in a section of the High Street which was totally unaffected by the Blitz of 1942 makes its presence even more unwelcome.

In reality it's a mess that occupies an enormous plot on the corner of the High Street with Queen Street. Incidentally, the opposite corner had already been crudely defaced with the demolition of a fine row of mid-19th century townhouses in 1971. The image below right combines a 1905 map of Exeter with a modern aerial view of the same area. The buildings which were demolished in the late 1970s to construct the "inept lump" are highlighted in red. The surviving Guildhall is highlighted in purple. All of the plots highlighted in yellow indicate just some of Exeter's pre-war buildings which survived the Blitz of 1942 but which were demolished by the local authority between 1963 and 1979.

Some of the buildings affected in Queen Street were a row of Grade II listed townhouses which were deemed structurally unsound. A rubber silicon mould was taken of the facades and the frontages were recreated in cast concrete (this building will be covered in a separate post). The Grade II listed Higher Market to the north-east had been severely mutilated during the construction of the Guildhall Shopping Centre a few years earlier.

The upper floors of the building squat over the pavement, propped up on pillars which only act as obstacles in an area which is already congested with pedestrians trying to avoid the buses trundling up and down the High Street. Obviously the reason for the oversailing floors is to squeeze more retail space out of the plot but it also has the deeply unfortunate effect of thrusting the building far out into the street, totally dominating its surroundings at the expense of the surviving historical frontages on the opposite side of the High Street. Maybe this is what the conservation report meant by "assertive", and like most of Exeter's other post-war architectural disasters, it probably seemed like a good idea at the time. The architects were Norman Jones Sons & Rigby and the building apparently "echoes the materials and forms already found in Exeter". Whatever. When completed in 1980 it was described by one architectural journal as "a dog's dinner".

The creation of the building for Marks and Spencer between 1979 and 1980, and the small but contemporary development at No. 211 High Street, involved the demolition of a number of late-19th century buildings.

Until c1880 the site was occupied by several towering timber-framed properties from c1700 (shown in the rare c1865 photograph left). Only the strange old house at No. 210, the little pair of houses at Nos. 211 and 212, dating to c1650, and the medieval parish church of Allhallows, were older. The church was removed in 1906, and the other buildings on the site were all replaced gradually between c1880 and c1910 in conjunction with the widening of Goldsmith Street at the end of the 19th century. Nos. 211 and 212 were the last of the group to be rebuilt c1910. It was these replacement properties which were demolished in the late-1970s. At the end of 1979, as the foundations for the new building were being excavated, workmen unearthed six skeletons dating from the 17th century which had formerly been buried within the church of Allhallows on Goldsmith Street.

The late-Victorian and Edwardian replacements admittedly weren't exactly ground-breaking as architecture. The most attractive was probably the building occupied until 1975 by the Waltons department store. Made of brick with numerous dressed stone accents, the facade was dotted with architectural decorations: pointed pediments over the windows, a small pediment above the roofline of the central bay, bay windows overhanging the street, circular oculus windows, panels of stonework carved with a florid quasi-Jacobean strapwork design, etc. The replacement Edwardian building at Nos. 211 and 212 featured a top storey of Tudor Revival black and white timber framing. Underneath this were two floors of brick with stone mullion windows. The most mediocre of these new buildings was on the corner of the High Street with Queen Street, and unfortunately it's the only one for which I have a decent photograph right. The top of the cupola from this building was recycled and shoved on top of the 1980 structure, where it still sits today.

The postcard view below left is from c1965. Highlighted in red are the late-19th and early-20th century buildings which were demolished in 1979. The photograph was taken from almost exactly the same spot as the early pre-1880 image above left. The structure with the mock-Tudor black and white timber-framing curved around in Goldsmith Street. It was an infinitely more attractive building than its replacement and at least blended successfully with the remaining historical frontages on the High Street.

It's possible that elements of much older buildings remained intact behind the Edwardian facades. Unfortunately no archaeological investigation took place and all of the buildings were destroyed without any record being made of their architectural history.

No-one would suggest that any city should be preserved unchanged in aspic for perpetuity. But it could be argued that in Exeter a moratorium on the demolition of other areas of the city should've been implemented after the huge destruction following the Blitz of 02 May 1942. Unfortunately the very opposite occurred and with so much of the pre-war fabric destroyed during World War Two it appears that the rest of the city was seen as 'fair game' and expendable in the subsequent decades. Very few buildings were regarded as sacrosanct in the post-war period. I would suggest that only the Guildhall, the castle gatehouse at Rougemont, the Cathedral itself, Tuckers Hall in Fore Street, the remaining fragments of St Nicholas's Priory and two or three buildings in the Cathedral Close would've been beyond the reach of the local authority's bulldozer had they found themselves in the way of a new road or a new retail development opportunity. Almost everything else which has survived into the 21st century has done so mostly through sheer luck and/or local campaigns organised by groups like the Exeter Civic Society, regarded by the city council in the 1970s as "an ineffectual nuisance".

What are now some of Exeter's most prominent pre-war buildings and areas were ear-marked for demolition between 1950 and the 1970s, properties like Nos. 225 & 226 and No. 227 on the High Street, the Higher Market in Queen Street and the Georgian houses at the top of Bartholomew Street West, all of which are now Grade II listed buildings. In his book 'Aspects of Exeter', Peter Thomas cites a scheme that emerged from the city council's planning department in 1961 which would've resulted in the total demolition of every surviving building bounded by Queen Street, Paul Street, North Street and the High Street, with the sole exception of the Guildhall and the Turk's Head inn. Fortunately it didn't come to fruition but clearly the intention was there (and many of the buildings concerned were indeed demolished in the 1970s). Given the cumulative effects of the pre-war slum clearances, the Blitz of 1942 and the subsequent post-war demolitions, it is actually surprising that any part of old Exeter has survived.

The postcard view above right of the junction of the High Street and Queen Street remained unchanged from c1910 until the 1970s. The lovely mid-19th century terrace, highlighted in green, was demolished in 1971. The buildings highlighted in purple, Nos. 206 & 207, were demolished in 1979, their Grade II listed facades recreated in a modified form using concrete. The block highlighted in red was demolished in 1979, and the building shown at the top of this post now occupies the site.


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