A brief history of houses – but appearances can be deceptive
Edward Stoyle, who heads the residential team at Carter Jonas’s York office, explains how to date a period property.
IF it’s half timbered, it’s probably medieval. If it’s classical, it’s probably Georgian and if it’s gothic, it must be Victorian. Well, not quite. Let’s start again.
Domestic buildings that predate the 14th century are a great rarity. Even in a city as ancient as York, the earliest cottages (Our Lady’s Row in Goodramgate) only date from about 1316. The materials to hand were oak, mud and straw, so that’s what they used. If you couldn’t find them new, you went to the Corporation’s recycling depot in Jubbergate and bought some reclaimed materials. As a result, you may find elements of a building that are far older than the building itself. Exposing the timbers was a Victorian fad; they were nearly always covered with lime plaster.
People built with timber frames for centuries but they had one particular problem. They caught fire. One only has to look at the Great Fire of London to see that. Post 1666, all new houses in London had to be built of brick with tile roofs.
One result of that was a change in styles and it was the classical architecture of the ancient world that inspired the Georgians. The elegance of it all – we all love those columns, the pediments, the pilasters.
This was the era of the great country house and those elegant city terraces. Taking their cue from the Greeks and Romans, the builders of these houses created almost perfect proportions, with light flooding in as never before. Little wonder their popularity is enduring and that the scale is widely copied to this day.
The Victorians begged to differ and saw the details copied from ancient temples as heathen and vulgar. The gothic style, they felt, was far purer and more Christian.
The Goths beat the Classicists for the design of the Palace of Westminster and thereafter had a clear run. Even the most modest houses mimicked the style, with steeply pitched roofs and pointed decoration.
Only at the end of the 19th century was there a backlash, as the Arts and Crafts movement came to the fore. Its emphasis was on simple lines and natural materials. Designs by the likes of Lutyens and craftsmanship by the likes of William Morris made what some would regard as Britain’s greatest single contribution to European architecture.
Most of us have no problem dating buildings from the 20th century. The most iconic must be the streamlined Art Deco that swept into this country from Europe and America between the wars. You will see examples on the Leeds Ring Road, symbols of taste and wealth of their owners. They sport flat roofs, painted walls and those distinctive critall windows with the horizontal glazing bars. This was a big contrast to the ubiquitous semi which tended to follow its own conservative route, right through to the 1960s.
After that, design went pear shaped and it has taken a new generation to form a more sympathetic view, 50 years on.
Finally, a word of warning to watch out for the snares. Some buildings are almost impossible to date.
The Georgians loved to be fashionable by slapping an up to date front on a medieval building. In the 20th century, one government minister even had his brand new gates listed by his own experts.
The next time you stand outside Bootham Bar in York, glance across to the Headmaster’s House next to the City Art Gallery. Could it really have been built in 1900?
TRICKY QUESTION: The Headmaster’s House near the City Art Gallery in York. Can you guess when it was built?