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  • Writer's pictureAlexis

Buildings tell stories, should you read them?

Downton Abbey (Left) and Chadhurst (right)

Buildings like Downton Abbey (or Highclere Castle to give its official name) have such a presence and a sense of history. They draw you in and leave you wondering what life would have been like when they were first built and as they have evolved and adapted over time. The dynamics of those that lived there and those that worked there, the drama and the scandal. It goes beyond the bricks and mortar and the internal decor. I feel the same about buildings, even those that are not as obviously grand but are just as special as they too have a story to tell. Take for example Chadhurst, a large middle-class house in suburban Leeds built around 1880 which was converted into flats 50 years later. Whilst the essence of the grand house may still be there, over time what it once looked like is forgotten. Original windows and doors are changed, some are blocked up and new ones created. Internal walls are erected to form new dwellings and what was once its grand rooms are altered and the beautiful detailing lost but if you look closely you can start to unpick its story.

If you have a property like Chadhurst which has been altered over the years and you want to learn more about it a good place to start is by looking at the outside. Stand back and really look your property and look for signs such as:

  • Changes to windows, doors and brick work. Look to see if there are any changes in materials and if there are lintels that look out of place. These horizontal structures that span the openings above windows and doors can often throw light on whether a window or door has been created, blocked up or altered in some way. Whilst it is a great guide, don’t be fooled by the symmetry applied to buildings when the window tax was in place. If the building has a sense of harmony and flow and has lintels and window ledges but is bricked over it may be that there was never a window in the first place and it was visual trickery. A good rule of thumb is if the materials used are all consistent, window ledges and lintels are in place then it was most likely to have been intended from the day it was built. If it looks like there were no lintels and now there are some then it is a good indication that it is a later addition.

  • Alterations to fireplaces. Look at your external walls and roof for signs of a chimney and see if it matches the internal spaces. If you no longer have a fireplace but you have a chimney stack then it is a good indication that there used to be one and you might be able to reinstate it. Fireplaces were often blocked up or removed to create more space in rooms when central heating replaced open fires as a source of heat - a sad by-product of progress. A fireplace creates a beautiful focal point when installed and finished correctly whilst also being an additional source of heat, but when they are replaced by something that is not in keeping or is something of an eye sore it detracts from the space.

  • Drainpipes. Does it look like there are any alterations, additions or removals? Whilst we are used to internal bathrooms these days, dependent upon on the age of your property these may have been a later addition. Outside toilets were commonplace along with a free-standing bathtub that was filled by hand. As understanding grew of the connection between cholera and poor sanitation it resulted in regulations being introduced and better facilities provided, even for poorer houses, until they became common place inside.

When looking at Chadhurst it is clear to see that there have been alterations made since it was first built. There are signs of a door from the lower ground floor leading to the ground floor at the rear of the property which has since been altered to a widow. There is also evidence of the stairs that would have allowed access. Looking at the chimney stacks it indicates that a fireplace has also been removed from this room. There is also evidence of the stairs that would have allowed access. Looking at the chimney stacks it indicates that a fireplace has also been removed from this room. This would most likely be to accommodate the alterations when the house became flats windows have been created in the basement, first and second floor and attic.

Side elevation showing alterations to the windows and pipework.

If you are able to obtain the original floor plans from your local archive office they will help to confirm or deny your findings and may offer up an even greater level of detail and understanding than is initially apparent. These plans will also assist you when you head back inside to see if what you have learned outside matches within. Can you see signs of a fireplace? Does the layout look and feel right based on what you have learnt from the outside?

Armed with the information obtained from doing an external assessment combined with reviewing the floor plans for Chadhurst it became apparent how the house had evolved.

  • It explained the slight variation in the flooring in one of the apartments kitchen as there was once a set of stairs leading into the basement.

  • Where the flooring is wooden the waterpipes have been installed underneath the floorboards. In the rooms where the flooring is tiled the waterpipes are visible running along the skirting boards indicating the installation of central heating and radiators as a later addition. Based on the age of the property and the wealth of the family, which has been confirmed by the floor plans and Census, the bathroom was installed at the time of being built. The Census is a fantastic source of information and confirmed that the property was built and owned by a Solicitor and over the years he employed between one and three servants at any one time, always a cook and at times general domestic staff to help look after the head of the house, his wife and their three children. They also had a nursery which was not common in the majority of households of this era and the sons later followed in their father’s footsteps to become Solicitors.

  • Internal doors have been moved to accommodate the apartments. Access to what was once the dining room is now via a door on a different wall. The original door was via the entrance hall and it is not obvious when looking at either walls so you have to applaud the workmanship.

  • One mystery that still needs solving is why the flooring in the entrance hall is laid the way it is as it does not visually sit well with the central staircase. It looks like the staircase has been moved but from looking at the original floor plans this is not the case. Obtaining the subsequent floor plans when the house was divided into three and then seven apartments may shed more light.

By using an example such as Chadhust it demonstrates that when you start unpicking a property there are many different avenues you need to go down whilst referencing different sources of information; the Census, floor plans, planning approval documentation, local history, OS maps, the list goes on. If you are truly interested in your property it is time well spent. It becomes more paramount if you have a listed property. It is not simply a case of how it looked at creation, it is important to understand how it has evolved and what events and decisions may have driven those changes. All of this information is incredibly powerful to help you decide what to do with your property now and going forward so that you respectfully care for it and adapt it sensitively to your needs. Engaging with your local planning authority and Conservation Officers will ensure that as custodians you are objectively looking at the property and acting as a true caretaker working in tandem with other specialists including a Heritage Interior Designer. Everyone will have a different perspective and area of expertise and whilst it is sad that buildings change and their original form is often lost, its character can remain. It is surely far better for a property to be used and appreciated than it is for it to be left to ruin. The key to altering a building is to ensure you understand its character and what made it special from the outset, blending this with what you need from it and intertwining all this with your personality. Respect, balance and harmony. This is something we pride ourselves on at V A Heritage. If you are embarking on a project to learn more about your house, how it has evolved and how it should continue to evolve and would like some guidance then I would love to hear from you. Email me at and we can kick start your design journey.


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