5. Past Reconstruction and Future Works

Future works to historic houses will doubtless take a variety of different forms depending on the requirements of individual sites. But all interpretation and physical works to historic buildings needs to be informed by the history of that structure. This research puts the histories of individual buildings into a wider context and enables broad patterns of changing approaches to be identified.

Graphical representations that model changes to houses within this broader context enable an overview of the reconstruction history of a building to be pulled together from a variety of evidence. This has been developed for Blakesley Hall, an example of a building that has seen considerable change since the 1930s. The model may not be entirely applicable where there is just one main phase of reconstruction, but where there are phases of intervention which create a palimpsest and which need unpicking stratigraphically, then this sort of approach may be useful, and may also help put works into a broader context.

The flowchart or plan format suggested in this article could act as a means of collating data from archaeological surveys and documentary research to show the modern stratigraphy of a house's history. This would inform future conservation work and, if appropriately modified, an illustration of recent change within a building could be part of interpretation for visitors. Whatever choices are made, the heritage manager is making decisions about what the visitor sees and with what information they are provided:

Given that the relationship between past and present is necessarily mediated by representative strategies, we need to consider the responsibilities that attach to the necessity of undertaking that representation, as we do each time we write or speak about the past
(Tarlow 2001, 61-2).

The gathering of evidence about the history of a building before future works take place is now common practice within conservation management plans, just as a desk-based assessment would take place before an archaeological excavation. Similarly, comparative analysis of the history of reconstruction of historic houses is another tool for the modern heritage manager seeking to understand and interpret a historic place. Although each individual house has a unique history, changes in approach in reconstruction could help guide the ways in which those changes are preserved or altered, presented and explained to visitors. Decisions will always need to be made about which elements of a building's history are to be retained and represented. As seen in the case-study houses, pragmatic decisions are required about how buildings are treated. Working within legal and philosophical boundaries and financial constraints, heritage managers work to present aspects of the complex history of buildings.

This research acts to focus attention on some of the modern interventions to historic buildings. When works to a historic building are being planned, the past alterations will need to be evaluated. Knowledge of modern interventions and their place in the history of the building and the history of historic building reconstruction will aid discussion on their maintenance or reversal. Although the earlier history of buildings is commonly studied, recorded and considered in future plans, this more recent history can have huge impacts on buildings, and is easily overlooked.

Placing work undertaken to historic buildings over the last 130 years within the context of work at other similar buildings reveals some of the attitudes, values and philosophies in play at the time, and can make clear that the reconstruction undertaken at one building is part of a wider movement which reflects that period of modern history.

Some key themes have emerged from research into 112 case-study buildings about the nature of reconstruction and changes to it since the late 19th century. The value and interest of the past was continually recognised, but changes in emphasis and priority have affected treatment of historic buildings. Between 1877, when the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings was formed, and the start of the First World War in 1914 there was a popular interest in the medieval past, growing out of the gothic revival and going through to the arts and crafts movement (Gerrard 2003, 30-90), and buildings were often presented to the public as examples of that period. Sometimes this was done with philanthropic aims of social improvement. When the National Trust was formed the founders' philanthropic principles to improve the quality of life of the working classes were married with preserving landscapes and buildings, and one of the early aims of the National Trust under the guidance of Octavia Hill was to concentrate on preserving areas of countryside near towns and cities for the urban poor to enjoy (Waterson 1994, 19-24).

In the interwar period, buildings continued to be reconstructed, but the aim was more commonly for use as local history or folk museums. This was the case for Hall i' th' Wood. This came at a time when Britain continued to build new houses in a mock-Tudor style, against the fashion around Europe for modernist homes (Saunders 1981, 167). This may reflect an increased interest in Englishness, and the English past, as a response to the threats posed by the First World War, and the fear of the impending Second World War.

The massive National Trust Country Houses Scheme took over as the biggest driver in historic building reconstruction. Little Moreton Hall was acquired under this scheme, and perhaps reflected the interest in preserving an aspect of Englishness, and maintaining funding for the running of large houses and stately homes.

In the 1960s and 1970s there was a boom in historic building reconstruction, and work showed greater confidence when dealing with historic structures than at any time previously. This was seen with the reconstruction work undertaken at Blakesley Hall in this period. Many historic buildings were under threat at the time, and some were moved to open-air museums, as described with the Winkhurst and Bayleaf farmhouses.

In more recent years, since the 1980s, there has been further bold reconstruction work at some sites, like that at Barley Hall. Interpretation and access have become key themes within historic buildings, and many interventions aim to improve physical and intellectual access to buildings, sometimes through interpretation centres, including interpretation centres like that built at Blakesley Hall, and the Gridshell Building constructed at the Weald and Downland Museum. The Association for Heritage Interpretation was formed in 1975 to spearhead these developments. Many buildings were taken on in this period by building preservation trusts, who were able to gain funding to reconstruct buildings and open them to the public.

There has been sustained interest in historic buildings, and from the publication of Country Life (1895 onwards) to the recent popularity of television programmes on history and archaeology, including the Channel 4 Restoration series, there has been media support for peoples' interest in historic houses. Interest in the past, however, has been seen to result from deeper, fundamental feelings, rather than being the product merely of media manipulation. In the interwar period, and after the Second World War, there was interest in the past and in historic buildings, perhaps as a reassurance following the perceived threats to the nation's history (Lowenthal 1985, 44-6, 336). At this time many buildings were opened and used for displays about everyday life in the past, preserving some elements of traditional life and work. Similarly, interest was spurred again by the loss of historic buildings in the process of post-war reconstruction in the 1960s and 1970s (Urry 1990, 107-9; Samuel 1994, 149).

Through the period covered in this study, c. 1877 to the present, buildings archaeology has developed as a discipline, and pressure groups have maintained their influence while developing their approaches and ideas in line with evolving academic understanding of buildings. It has been observed, using many example buildings, that the written and spoken rhetoric about historic buildings, their value, the appropriateness of reconstruction techniques and the need for authenticity, have not been closely matched to the physical works actually undertaken at the historic buildings under consideration. This key conclusion has been verified by Gerrard, who sees 'curiously dual standards' operating in relation to the preservation and presentation of medieval archaeological sites through the late 19th century (2003, 61). This research has revealed the extent of this dichotomy in relation to historic buildings.

It may be very difficult to answer questions about why work was carried out at different times in the past, but evidence of the background circumstances of the various types of work undertaken, and the individual or organisation undertaking the reconstruction, could provide some contextual information. Researching changes to buildings and the context of the conservation philosophy when they were carried out will add to the understanding of a building's history. The recent past of historic houses will be an important element in what a visitor experiences; the greater the realisation of that history by heritage managers and visitors, the more apparent the complex past of a place can be.


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