Friday, 26 April 2013

The Destruction of the High Street After 1942

The destruction of 50% of the High Street during the Exeter Blitz was obviously a disaster for the city's historical landscape, but around 220 metres of unbroken pre-war frontages did survive on both sides of the street for about half of its length. The remaining buildings ran from the corner of South Street almost as far as St Stephen's Church and included some of the High Street's oldest domestic houses (most of which still fortunately survive). The postcard above is of the view up the High Street c1968. Most the buildings shown, apart from The Guildhall, were demolished in the 1970s.

The image right is based on a 1905 map of the city combined with a modern aerial view of the same area. It shows the 50% of the High Street which remained largely unaffected by bombing in 1942. The plots highlighted in red, mostly to the right, were destroyed in 1942 along with a single building on the south-west corner.

The properties highlighted in purple are pre-war buildings which still exist today. The most easterly of these are St Stephen's Church and No. 229 High Street.

The plots highlighted in yellow show the location of buildings on the High Street which survived the Exeter Blitz but which were destroyed between 1950 and 1980, most of them by Exeter City Council for redevelopment. The map illustrates the sobering fact nearly half of the High Street that existed after 1942 was subsequently demolished in the post-war years. A solitary building at the High Street's most western point was destroyed in 1942. This was No. 74 High Street which stood on the corner of the High Street and South Street. No. 73, which survived the Blitz, was demolished in the 1950s as part of the scheme to widen South Street. A fine timber-framed facade from c1600, one of the few still left within the city walls, which stood at the rear of No. 72 High Street was inexplicably demolished at the same time.

The 1950s also saw the demolition of the remains of No. 36 High Street, as well as Nos. 37 & 38 High Street. No. 36 High Street dated to c1805 and featured in Richardson and Gill's 1924 book 'Regional Architecture in the West of England'. It was a narrow four-storey building, notable for the bow windows on its top three floors. The top two storeys were damaged in 1942 and it was reduced in height to just the ground floor and first floor. Instead of being reconstructed the remaining two floors were cleared away as part of the redevelopment of Colsons department store which had occupied the building prior to 1942 (now Dingles).

Next to No. 36 was No. 37 High Street, shown left c1955. This was a timber-framed merchant's house, possibly built as a pair, dating from c1600 and very similar in appearance to the still-surviving Nos. 41 & 42 High Street. Harbottle Reed poked around inside the building in 1931 and reported that there was little of interest to be found, but it's highly likely that original features were concealed behind later alterations and that much of the original fabric remained. The property, one of only three twin-gabled timber-framed houses still surviving in the city centre with their street facades intact, was allegedly found to be structurally unsound. It was subsequently demolished in the 1950s. (The two surviving examples are the above-mentioned Nos. 41 & 42 High Street and No. 67 South Street.)

No. 38 stood on the corner of the High Street and St Martin's Lane. It was formerly a branch of the West of England and South Wales District Bank. Built of stone in the mid 19th century, the exterior of No. 38 was ornately decorated with pilasters capped with Corinthian capitals and egg-and-dart moulding around the doorway. The building is shown in the photo right c1925. No. 38 High Street was also bizarrely demolished in the 1950s and replaced with yet another drab, red brick block.

The buildings opposite Nos. 36, 37 & 38 High Street fared little better. The carved, mid 17th century wooden facade of No. 227 High Street is now one of the city's landmark buildings. Despite being granted Grade II* status in 1953, from 1958 onwards Exeter City Council repeatedly tried to secure its demolition for road-widening. Another application for its destruction was made in 1960 and yet another in 1962. Objections made at the time ensured the building's survival but in 1971 almost the entire structure was destroyed for new retail space. Only the timber-framed facade was left standing and the ground floor was gutted to become a pedestrianised walkway. The demolition took place without any archaeological record being made although a number of original features, including a mullioned window, a flagstone passageway and part of a substantial 17th century staircase, are known to have been destroyed.

(The photo left shows part of the High Street which was left undamaged after the Exeter Blitz. The facade of No. 228, the 'Civet Cat' emporium, is just visible to the far right. Although the photo itself was taken c1910, all of the buildings shown remained essentially unaltered until they were largely demolished between 1971 and 1980. Only the gutted timber-framed facades of No. 227 and No. 226 still survive.)

The same fate awaited the adjacent No. 226 High Street. Dating to the mid 16th century, the timber-framed facade of No. 226 had already been heavily restored in 1907. It too had been granted Grade II* listed status in 1953 but the city council tried to demolish it for road-widening in 1958. This is when the now infamous cartoon appeared in the local paper accompanied by the caption "Come to Exeter and Watch the Natives Pull it Down". Like the planned demolition of No. 227, the proposed destruction of No. 226 High Street caused an uproar. By 1962 the council had been granted permission from the government to demolish the building but the plans were hampered by objections led by Professor William Hoskins and the Exeter Civic Society. In 1971 the entire building was demolished apart from the timber-framed facade. The ground floor was also gutted to make a pedestrian walkway. Only the facades of Nos. 226 & 227 High Street now remain but it's quite obvious that even they only now survive because of the actions of the Exeter Civic Society.

Referring to the treatment of Nos. 226 & 227 High Street, Peter Thomas has written that their "facades only exist as considerable vandalism took place with the whole insides of the buildings being ripped out. It can be said that the frontages are only held as a token of the past and are a classic example of the lack of interest and damage that has been done to the City's buildings in the past".

It's worth comparing this with the bold claim made in the council-run Royal Albert Memorial Museum that after the destruction of World War Two "people were determined to look after the historic buildings that had survived". Unfortunately the evidence belies the veracity of such a claim. In terms of the attitude of the local authority to the city's historical architecture it was as if the Exeter Blitz had never happened at all.

Although the facades of Nos. 226 & 227 High Street were largely retained the pre-war buildings on either side of them were demolished. No. 228 High Street stood on the western corner of the High Street and Gandy Street. It
had been sold to the city in 1759 and became known as the Mansion House or the Mayoralty House. It seems to have been largely rebuilt in 1791.

During the 19th century the premises had a show room converted out of the former banqueting hall of the mayors of Exeter. In 1843 it became the premises of the Civet Cat, a company selling luxury perfumes, soaps and other high-end objects and after World War Two was the location of Timothy Whites hardware store. No. 228 High Street had a plain Georgian facade which, unfortunately, seems to have resulted in it being one of the least photographed buildings on the High Street. It was demolished in the late 1980s and replaced with the yet another bland red-brick block (now the Britannia Building Society). I've no idea if anything of interest was found when the building was demolished.

On the west side of Nos. 225/226 & 227 was No. 224 High Street. This was a narrow building, which must've been constructed on the site of a medieval tenement. It was four storeys tall, the top two floors each having a single bay window which projected out over the pavement below. It was demolished in 1971 without any systematic record made into the building's architectural history. As the structure was being pulled down an A-framed truss belonging to the roof of a two-storey house was founded embedded in the side wall of No. 225/226. The truss dated to the 14th or 15th century. Its place in the evolution of either No. 224 or No. 225/226 will never be known. The only record of the discovery are a series of photos taken by a passer-by.

The neo-Classical building next to No. 224, which curved around the corner from the High Street into Queen Street, was part of a terrace of nine early Victorian townhouses, most of which were located in Queen Street itself. The entire terrace was demolished by the city council in 1971 and replaced with a structure that was infinitely worse than anything constructed in the upper High Street during the post-war rebuilding. No. 224 and the corner building of the Queen Street terrace are both shown in the photo above left. The photo above right shows what replaced the pre-war buildings in 1971. Even the artfully placed tree can't disguise the structure's hideousness.

The post-war demolition of the eastern corner of the High Street and Queen Street junction was bad enough. Unfortunately the western corner was similarly destroyed. The buildings shown in the photo left extended down the north side of the High Street from Queen Street, past the entrance into Goldsmith Street and almost as far as The Guildhall. Despite surviving the Exeter Blitz they were all demolished between 1975 and 1980 and replaced with the current Marks & Spencer building (a structure variously described as "wretched", "an inept lump" and "a dog's dinner").

Most of the demolished buildings i.e. Nos. 212 to 219 High Street dated from c1890 to c1910 and had in turn replaced a number of tall properties from c1700. It's been suggested to me that traces of these earlier buildings remained embedded in the fabric of their late Victorian replacements but the entire row was destroyed in the 1970s without record. Although not the finest structures in Exeter, the buildings added much to the varied architectural character of the already battered High Street. The fact that this was at the time part of the city's central conservation area makes their demolition even more deplorable.

Nos. 206 & 207 High Street right stood on the western corner of the High Street and Goldsmith Street. Both buildings were granted Grade II listed status in 1974. The facade of No. 206 probably concealed elements of an earlier structure but externally at least the properties dated to c1830. Both buildings were completely demolished in 1979, the original facades replaced with modified concrete casts. At the back of No. 207 was the late 18th century No. 1 Goldsmith Street. It was also Grade II listed but, like nearly all of Goldsmith Street, it was demolished for redevelopment in the 1970s.

Slightly further down on the other side of the street stood Nos. 50 to 52 High Street. This comprised two separate buildings from the 18th century or earlier. They backed onto No. 21 Cathedral Yard. A narrow, flagged passageway called Exchange Lane ran underneath the facade of No. 51 linking the High Street to the cathedral precinct. Nos. 50 to 52 were demolished in 1963 and replaced with the remarkably poor 'Burger King' building. No. 21 Cathedral Yard, an early 18th century townhouse with a Grade II* listed interior, was shamefully demolished with the consent of the city council in 1964.

On the corner of the High Street and Broadgate were three Grade II listed buildings, Nos. 61, 62 & 63 High Street. All three dated to around the end of the 17th century, although they had received a single Victorian brick facade in the 19th century. The buildings were all badly damaged by fire in the mid 1970s and subsequently demolished. An entirely new structure was built on the site.

Almost opposite the entrance into Broadgate stood Nos. 196, 197 & 198 High Street, shown left highlighted in red c1965. At the core of No. 196 High Street was a late 16th century townhouse which had been heavily remodelled in 1914. The remodelling had involved the removal of some oriel windows overlooking the High Street and the destruction of a plasterwork ceiling. Despite these alterations it appears that significant parts of the 16th century building remained in situ and the property was given Grade II listed status in 1953.

Nos. 197 & 198 dated to the 18th century or earlier. They stood on a single large medieval tenement plot which had probably been subdivided in the 15th century. The rears of both properties extended as far back as Waterbeer Street which they fronted as Nos. 21 & 22 Waterbeer Street. The parts of the buildings sited on Waterbeer Street both dated to c1700 and had Grade II listed status. It seems highly likely that the parts which fronted onto the High Street were of a similar age but had received modernised facades in the 18th century. Nos. 196, 197 & 198 High Street were all demolished in 1973 to create a pedestrianised entrance into the new Guildhall shopping centre. Nos. 21 & 22 Waterbeer Street were demolished at the same time. A late Elizabethan fireplace and wooden window from No. 196 High Street were left in situ following the demolition and can now be seen in the show room of H Samuel in the shopping centre

The image above shows part of the High Street that survived the Exeter Blitz intact. The buildings highlighted in red was Nos. 61, 62 & 63 High Street destroyed by fire in the 1970s. The properties highlighted in yellow were all deliberately demolished between 1950 and 1980. It's fortunate that anything survived on the north side of the High Street at all. According to Jacqueline Warren, in 1960 the city council's planning department came up with a scheme which would've seen the complete demolition of every standing pre-war building on the north side of the High Street except for The Guildhall and the Turk's Head. This would've resulted in the destruction of Nos. 192, 193 & 194 High Street, No. 195 High Street and Nos. 199 & 200 High Street, all of which are now Grade II listed. As Jacqueline Warren wrote: "As we look at the city today, and consider what has been done to it, [we] can only console ourselves with the thought, 'it could have been even worse!'" Indeed it could've been worse, but not by much.

The postcard view below c1985 shows the gutted timber-framed facades of Nos. 226 & 227 High Street surrounded by a sea of insipid post-war redevelopment. The building to the far right, No. 229 High Street, only dates to 1930 and was partially damaged by fire in 1942. (It was built on the site of the birthplace of Sir Thomas Bodley, the founder of the Bodleian Library at Oxford). One of its magnificent Jacobean windows were salvaged from No. 20 North Street at the end of the 19th century (the other is presumably a copy). All the pre-war buildings to the left of No. 229 survived the Blitz undamaged only to be largely demolished during post-war redevelopment.

It can easily be argued that the local authority turned the disaster of 1942 into a catastrophe as far as Exeter's historical architecture was concerned, perpetuating a trend that was already well established long before bombs started falling on the city. To the post-war destruction of the High Street can be added the vast post-war demolitions that took place around Goldsmith Street, Waterbeer Street and North Street, in Magdalen Street and Holloway Street, Cowick Street and Alphington Street not to mention the pre-war demolition of the West Quarter, Paul Street, Frog Street and Edmund Street.

Perhaps it's easy with the benefit of hindsight, but it doesn't take much imagination to envisage Exeter as it might've been had the local authority retained most of the city's surviving pre-war architecture following the Blitz of 1942, repaired and/or reconstructed the Georgian splendour of Southernhay, Dix's Field and Bedford Circus, retained the medieval street plan and integrated the many surviving buildings in bomb-damaged areas with new structures instead of demolishing them completely. All of this would've been perfectly feasible and well within the capabilities of the city at the time. Instead of which destruction was piled upon demolition and demolition was piled upon destruction. It is a genuinely tragic tale..

The image below shows a complete aerial view of the High Street. Sites destroyed or badly damaged during the Exeter Blitz are highlighted in red. Buildings demolished between 1950 and 1980 are highlighted in yellow. Surviving pre-war structures are highlighted in purple, and even five or six of these were only built between 1900 and 1942. Only a few pathetic remnants now survive of what was once Exeter's most historically important street.



mrcawp said...

An amazing - and heartbreaking - post.

So much lost, so unnecessarily.

I look forward (patiently) to the day or century when poetry and right reason returns to the soul of Englishmen. Maybe we'll build beautiful things again instead of smashing them.

wolfpaw said...

Yes, it's a sad story. In a very real way the history of a city is embodied in its buildings. And not just the big historical stories, like the Civil War or the Reformation, but the everyday lives of the people who built the houses and who lived and died in them.

Unfortunately no city or town in England escaped the post-war townplanner. What is so disappointing in Exeter is that no exception was made given the destruction already wrought on the city in 1942. It was pretty much 'business as usual' and the buildings came down just the same.

youngdoug said...

I was down in the High Street a few days ago and had a good long look at the main part from the John Lewis end to where it narrows. I reckon it's a very interesting set of buildings, and is a curious and, dare I say it, impressive. There are some Georgian-derived motifs quite expertly put included and each building is subtly and strongly differentiated. They've also stood the test of time quite well, but could still do with looking after.

It seems to me that the whole space is deigned to be seen without street furniture but most importantly a lot of the ground level shop fronts have been allowed to nearly do what they want. Shop fronts in keeping with the buildings would be a vast improvement.

I seriously suggest that the High Street will be seen in the future as an impressive architecture.

wolfpaw said...

Hi Doug - Thanks for your comment and I'd agree with you to some extent. Compared with a number of other places, the rebuilt High Street could've been worse. The best side is the north 'Boots' side, and as far as I know this was the earlier phase of the rebuilding. It's strange that the opposite side is exceptionally poor in comparison. Maybe they ran out of money.

I think the problem isn't so much the architecture as the philosophy that it represented i.e. a complete break with the character of the pre-war city. By massively widening the High Street so it could take a dual carriageway and by building great blocks of horizontal retail space it totally reversed the narrow, vertical character of what was there before. The other big problem is that with these vast retail areas the city can no longer evolve in a piecemeal fashion as it had for 2000 years. As we've seen in Princesshay, you can't redevelop one part without developing all of it. The same thing will happen with the bus station and the corner of Sidwell Street. Whereas before one building would replace another with relatively little impact now it's a case of all or nothing.

It's hard to imagine any small part of the post-war High Street being replaced without massive reconstruction on either side. If the High Street had been rebuilt on the old tenement plots then it could've evolved again bit by bit, with post-war buildings, very modern buildings and (dare we have hoped) even the odd historically reconstructed facade.

I agree that the street furniture doesn't help, neither do the minibuses, and I think that 'Exeter Riddle Book' sculpture looks incongruous where it's been squeezed onto the pavement (the less said about that god-awful new 'mural' on the side of No. 229 the better).

I'd be more than happy to see the north side getting listed building status at some time, if only to prevent the city refashioning itself anew every 40 or 50 years, probably what will happen. (I think I'm in the minority of loathing the much-vaunted Princesshay development.)

youngdoug said...

I'll have another look to compare the north and south sides.

Yes, it can't develop piecemeal but then neither can the much beloved Georgian crescents put up in various cities. Look at the only piecemeal development on the north side - the old ABC site - and it's pathetic compared to the 1950's constructions.

NEXT doesn't belong there either - and am I the only one to despair over what John Lewis has done to Bobby's? I remember Bobby's going up, so might be a little biased here, but it was a lovely example of 1960's 'build-by-block' architecture.

It would be grand to give the High listed building status and move the Riddle sculpture - it doesn't belong there.

The Princesshay development - are there people who like it? Typical bland MOR retail space. Compare it too the High st where you can see the architects have thought about and are very aware of the use of proportions. It's a tragic missed opportunity.

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