Conserving a Great Building – Unusual heritage values

There are three earlier posts in this series. See…

Sometimes one needs courage in conservation because great buildings can lead those who conserve them to uncomfortable places.

The post-construction stories of great historic buildings usually involve the gradual removal of distinction and the slow erosion of individuality. The mundane begins to take over. Relatively recent buildings consciously created as works of art, such as those by the Arts & Crafts Movement or the Classical or Gothic Revival can suffer the most. Older structures have much more complex histories with many phases and are therefore somewhat different.
The purpose of historic building conservation is to fully research and understand often complex artistic values and then either to preserve, conserve or restore them as appropriate. The job is not to add more of the mundane but to engage with what makes the building different, exciting or beautiful. It is creative work but one shaped by extreme sensitivity towards the ‘other’ creativity embedded in the heritage asset. In such highly artistic buildings, the conservator should be rather like an assistant of the future, supporting the master in maintaining the design intent. Such heritage values usually underpin the significance of the building in some way and I feel that the conservator should always act in solidarity with the original designer in their continued expression, even if they may no longer seem relevant or have deemed to be ‘wrong’.

The conservation or restoration of some heritage values is not always straight forward. They may go against contemporary opinion, certain dogmatic attitudes or even vested interests, such as what benefits those undertaking the work the most. This is can be true where the heritage values challenge the values embedded in our own contemporary society, including those of an ever growing and standardised conservation industry. Sometimes, these conflicts can be a contemporary echo of the original outcry which may have been faced by the creator of the building. Below is an example of  where part of the original design intentions and significance were not conserved for such reasons.  Occasionally, conservation has a big ethical dimension where some heart searching may be needed in how to respond appropriately.

In practice, the above can arise in a variety of situations, such as in conserving buildings which stretched the normal use of materials, or where there was a vigorous adoption of rustic values in a design, or, the embracing of controversial or unusual aspects of design or decoration which don’t ‘fit’ with what one expects to see, as seen in the example quoted.

The Heritage Significance Statement is where such things should be raised, discussed and resolved. Unfortunately, these are often weak and poorly thought through, often written after decisions have already been made. As much time as possible needs to be given to understanding the heritage asset and how best to approach it. Great buildings need months, if not years of reflection. 

Conservation work is essentially the imposition of contemporary values upon an historic structure or historic fabric. We conserve things to change them into what we want them to be – ideally something akin to the original. The result is a mirror to the values of the conservator and how they, as individuals, respond to wider sector and societal values – mundane or otherwise.

Long Street Methodist Church & School (1899), Middleton, Manchester

Long Street Methodist Church & School (1899), Middleton, Manchester, is an expressive Arts & Crafts design which majored on the textures, colours and the materiality of the relatively poor rural buildings then found in the vicinity. Its artist-architect, Edgar Wood, deliberately created buildings with transient surfaces so that the building’s appearance steadily changed expressing the qualities of its materials. He achieved this by evenly painting in coats of limewash the external surfaces, running straight across architectural features and details in the tradition of the local cottages. The limewash then gradually washed off at different rates artistically exposing the underlying forms and materials until there was nothing left.
In the above photo of the church and school, taken about 5 years after completion, the metal surfaces have already lost most of their wash, followed by the timber, then the stone window surrounds and lastly the render which stayed white the longest due to its gritty substrate holding onto the wash. Eventually the render also faded in a natural uneven sort of way at which point the surfaces were recoated and the process repeated.
This effect of an ever changing limewashed exterior was enhanced at the church and school by gravelly ground surfaces and white ‘spotted’ headers on the pinkish orange common brickwork, which in turn was complemented by the green of the courtyard garden and the yellow-buff of the local Pennine roofing flags.
In this and many other respects Edgar Wood’s designs challenged the architectural ideas of his day which focused on permanence and resistance to weathering. Needless to say, such buildings were misunderstood and derided locally but were published internationally in art and architectural journals across Europe and America. The church and school pictured here comes from a USA publication of 1912.
Two modern conservation projects at the church and school, a generation apart, were similarly unable to embrace Wood’s fragile materiality, despite it being a unique component of the building’s outstanding significance. The values of the mundane were sadly imposed in two stages, first by flagging the gravel areas and removing the white spotted brickwork by sandblasting while rebuilding the courtyard walls in smooth engineering bricks and, secondly, by removing the original limewashed skim render (which subtly followed the underlying brickwork) replacing it with a thicker render coated with a permanent silicate paint and similar permanent coatings on the timber and metalwork.

The Edgar Wood house, Barcroft, Rochdale (1894) being rewashed after the original lime wash had all but completely faded. Compare with the header photograph taken a few years earlier. It is interesting that the owner, who was an artist friend of Edgar Wood, chose to show the house with the rewashing part way through as if to highlight the transient qualities of its appearance.