Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Paragon House: No. 75, South Street

That Paragon House in South Street was destroyed before it could be investigated makes it one of the city's most frustrating and tragic architectural losses. Surviving records indicate that it was a complex building of medieval origin, a remarkable palimpsest to which centuries of history had adhered like barnacles. There are so many questions and so few answers but it's possible to provide a basic description of the building as it existed prior to its destruction in 1942.

Paragon House wasn't actually located on South Street at all but was set well back from the street, hidden behind other buildings. It seems that access into the house was from two sources. One entrance was via a narrow covered passageway which ran underneath No. 74 South Street. This pedestrian passageway exited into a small paved courtyard and directly ahead would've been the facade of Paragon House, as shown in the drawing above left © Devon County Council. The second entrance was via Coombe Street which ran to the south of the property. Paragon House was of sufficient importance to be individually labelled on the 1876 Ordnance Survey map. This same map shows that a much wider passageway, probably suitable for carriages, ran underneath one of the buildings on Coombe Street and into a courtyard near Paragon House.

The image right shows a detail from the map of 1905 overlaid onto a modern aerial view of the same area. Paragon House is highlighted in red. The pedestrian passageway from South Street leading to the small courtyard in front of Paragon House is highlighted in purple. The wider passageway from Coombe Street is highlighted in green. The White Hart inn is just visible in the bottom right corner. Both the 1876 and 1905 maps show a large garden existing behind the house.

The name of the house was connected with two terraces built in the 1820s and described in 1892 as being "18 very convenient and substantial brick-built dwelling houses known as Paragon Place." These five-roomed houses are also visible on the map. Paragon Place was accessed through yet another covered passageway off South Street and the lane which ran through Paragon Place passed the side wall and part of the garden of Paragon House. Presumably the terraces were named after the house and not the other way around although I don't know why or when Paragon House first acquired its name.

The name only appears once in the 'Exeter Flying Post' throughout the entire 19th century but it is almost certainly the property which was advertised for rental on a five-year lease in 1851, 1852 and again in 1856. It seems that Paragon House was being let with a number of buildings formerly belonging to a prosperous wine merchant called William Drewe. The 1851 advertisement describes the property as possessing "ample accommodation for a genteel family" having undergone "extensive alterations and improvements" during "the last few years". In 1856 the property, Lot 1, was listed as a "desirable and spacious family house...situate in South Street and Coombe Street". At the rear was a "coach house and stables, and large courtlage, with entrance from Coombe Street" as well as "an ornamented walled garden, occupying an area of about a quarter of an acre". It seems highly likely that this was Paragon House as it was the only property in the vicinity with a significant private garden. The aerial view below right from c1930 shows the crowded roof tops of houses on South Street. The large brick block of Paragon House, some distance from the other frontages on South Street, is highlighted in red. The photograph doesn't show much detail of the house but it does reveal its scale in comparison with many of the surrounding properties.

By the 1870s Paragon House was occupied by John Gullett Geare, one of the solicitors who dealt with letting the property in the 1850s. John Geare sat on the board of directors for the West of England Fire and Life Insurance Company, for which he also acted as president. He was the vice-president for the Institution for the Blind as well as being a board member for the West of England Eye Infirmary. An 1879 directory shows that No. 74 South Street, the building with the narrow passageway off South Street which led to Paragon House, was a wine merchant's. Also included in the details for No. 74, but not given its own street number, is "Geare Mr. John, Paragon House", although Paragon House is listed as "No. 75 South Street" in the 1881 census. When John Geare died in 1894 his obituary in the 'Exeter Flying Post' stated that he was "formerly of Paragon House". At the time of his death he was resident in a large detached house at "No. 1 Fair Park" (i.e. Fairpark Road in St Leonard's. The house still exists and is now a complementary health centre). Few records survive of Paragon House. There are a series of at least five tantalising drawings of the property in the Westcountry Studies Library, four of the interior and one of the exterior, all labelled "Paragon House, South Street, Exeter", all dated to approximately 1890 and all "presented by the executor of the late Mrs Overmass". Some of these images are reproduced here, all © Devon County Council, and from these drawings it's possible to theorise about the history of the house.

It seems that in the 14th or 15th century at least part of the site of Paragon House was occupied by a substantial medieval property. One of the drawings in the Westcountry Studies Library (not shown here) depicts a room in Paragon House which had retained significant medieval features, including massive ceiling beams and a large stone fireplace of a type which was once found in many of Exeter's larger medieval houses. There are no windows visible in the drawing and narrow steps can be seen ascending to an upper floor. This room was possibly located in the cellars of Paragon House although it might once have been the ground floor of the medieval building. The fact that the ground floor of Paragon House was raised above the surface level of the outer courtyard perhaps supports this theory. At the end of the 17th century the medieval house was almost completely remodelled, apparently resulting in the property which largely survived into the 20th century.

A date of 1675 existed on one of the exterior rainwater heads, perhaps commemorating the year that the work was completed. Much of the medieval house was probably swept away and replaced with a large brick-built block. The rebuilding might've been the result of a fire, as happened at No. 8 Cathedral Close in the 1690s, or because the owner simply wished to rebuild on the site of an already existing townhouse. Large brick houses of the late 17th century were never common in Exeter but the rebuilding of Paragon House in the 1670s made it coeval with the Custom House, No. 40 High Street and the Notaries' House. Such buildings introduced a profoundly different style of architecture into Exeter which had rarely been seen before, and Paragon House would've been one of the earliest examples of this new development.

The surviving images of Paragon House show that it was one of the most important and interesting domestic buildings in the city. The attractive late-17th century facade was embellished with tall ground floor decorative brick panels. Steps rose to the front door with a cornice above the entrance supported on brackets. Three small rectangular panes helped to light the interior. At some point a later structure had been built to the left, obscuring one of the ground floor windows and resulting in the blocking up of one of the first floor windows. The front door opened directly into a parlour which was clad in late-17th century panelling. Inset into one wall was an 18th century fireplace with dog-leg jambs and scrolled consoles. There was also an impressive panelled hallway which had a superb late-17th century staircase of turned balusters, wide treads and a substantial handrail.

The house had certainly been modified again when the windows were replaced, probably in the late 18th century. There are indications that some sections of the panelling had been moved and reinstalled, possibly when the fireplace was altered, and it's unlikely that an entrance door originally opened directly into the parlour. And, as mentioned above, further alterations took place in the mid-19th century. The rendered facade which overlooked the garden appeared to have been part of a later alteration too. But who rebuilt the house in the late 17th century? What was the nature of the medieval building which it replaced? Why were the medieval fragments set so far back from the rest of South Street? The Abbots of Tavistock Abbey and the Priors of Plympton Priory both had large residences on South Street and the street, as one of Exeter's main thoroughfares, would've been the location for some magnificent properties (the Abbots' townhouse became the Bear inn and part of the Priors' townhouse became the Black Lions inn, both now demolished.) Was the surviving medieval fabric once part of a larger complex of buildings? What else remained hidden away in the house, obscured by later alterations?

It's worth repeating that very little is known about the history of Paragon House. The fact remains that here was an exceptional late 17th century brick-built house in the city centre with important surviving interiors and substantial medieval fragments which was never investigated or surveyed and which seems to have been completely missed by 19th and early 20th century antiquarians. Nor is it mentioned by Richardson and Gill in their 1924 book 'Regional Architecture of the West of England'. There are no plans of the layout of the interior. There isn't a list of the rooms or the features which they contained, although the property's location behind other houses in South Street meant that it was probably easily overlooked. It's extraordinary that a building which appeared to be of such great interest could have such a small presence in the historical record.

Disastrously, Paragon House was completely destroyed during the air-raid of 04 May 1942. During the post-war reconstruction the garden was built over and the site of the house now lies beneath the startlingly vast and unpleasant 1960s block known as Concord House above left which dominates South Street and the surrounding area. The questions surrounding Paragon House and its medieval predecessor will probably always remain unanswered.


1 comment:

henfrew said...

I have census info showing my gt grandmother lived at 75 South Street in 1871. Found your blog - absolutely fascinating. Almost wept reading the St Mary Major section. Well done and keep it up!

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