On many occasions I have been involved with buildings that are being proposed for inclusion on the National Heritage List; establishing special architectural and historic interest is something with which most of us who work in the historic environment will be familiar. On far fewer occasions, I am sure, will we be involved with removing a building from the List. I would suggest there are two principal reasons for this: first, there is perhaps a genuine reluctance to strip a building of its statutory protection, which in itself seems anathema to most of us who fight the heritage cause, ‘just in case’ it should need protection from some future development. Secondly, there are perhaps few occasions when one would confidently assess a building to have lost the very prerequisite that demands its protection: how does one define and rate special architectural and historic interest?
A recent project brought these considerations into sharp relief. We were instructed to carry out a Historic Building Appraisal of a small cottage in the heart of rural Essex to inform future proposals. The building is sited on a quiet, though rather large, village green that developed as a hamlet of the original parish core, now located about a mile north. Ostensibly the building was a fairly straightforward example of late 15th or early 16th century single-storey thatched hall house, with an attic half-storey at the southern (service) end and a perhaps an ad hoc mezzanine at the northern (upper) end. It is a type of small hall-house that has surviving counterparts in neighbouring villages in this part of Essex. On this basis, the building was listed Grade II in 1983, when the building was in a state of dereliction.
Sadly, disaster struck within a year of listing when the building was gutted by fire. Photos taken at the time of rebuilding revealed that, despite the loss of internal partitions and the external timber-frame infilling, a good deal of structural fabric had survived, including sole and wall plates, most principal posts, the southern hip and a number of common rafter pairs. The brick stack, a 17th century insertion, also survived. There was therefore every reason to conclude that much of this fabric has been incorporated into the new-build.
However, there were some features of the building which challenged this viewpoint: the current brick stack bore no resemblance to that shown in the pre- and post-fire photos and was of a noticeably modern brick, the exposed rafter feet were all identical in shape and mathematically-precise in spacing, with modern machine saw marks. Internally, there were indications that the wall plate had been removed, as two reused jowled posts showed a gap where the plate should be, whilst the tie-beams were in new, band-sawn timber and the square-section crown posts were clearly modern insertions. Reflecting on these details, it was fairly clear that the building had been a wholesale rebuilding, incorporating only a small number of reused timbers, only one of which was in the same place. On this conclusion, initial discussions were opened with the Local Authority to discuss an application to delist the property; initial support was given but further opening-up was advised to be sure that no historic timbers remained in the walls or roof. The opening-up revealed that the entire roof and the external walls were in modern timber-frame; the reused principal posts and tie-beam had been relegated to a non-structural function.
Therefore on the basis of our report and the opening-up, an application was submitted to English Heritage to delist the building, on the grounds that it was now nothing more than a replication of an early Tudor cottage and, though the rebuilding largely attempted to replicate the overall 3-cell plan and even the position of the original hall window, its special architectural and historic interest had been greatly diminished, if not wholly lost. The application was subsequently approved after further investigation by English Heritage and the building removed from the List. Though some might argue that the mere replication of the hall-house plan retained some historical interest, the scale of the rebuilding and near-total loss of fabric made this argument difficult to sustain. Such cases, where the building’s spirit has been lost and effectively forged later, are regrettable, and serve to remind us that the National Heritage List is there to protect those buildings that retain their history and spirit. To maintain statutory protection of a building no longer meeting the requirements, would, to my mind, do a disservice to those that remain designated.