Monday, December 30, 2013
New lease of life
Often in this blog I write about what many would call the incidentals of buildings – odd bits of ornament, signage, details, and so on – and about buildings that are so low in status that they are little regarded by most passers-by. A lot of what I notice is hardly architecture at all – which is one reason why this blog is called English Buildings and not English Architecture. But I'm ending the year with a no-nonsense bit of high-status architecture, a beautifully proportioned and recently restored Georgian house, in fact one of the best provincial Georgian houses you could come across. It's St Helen's House in the centre of Derby and it was built in 1766 by local architect Joseph Pickford for one John Gisborne. In 1801 William Strutt (son of Jedediah Strutt the industrialist, textile manufacturer, and associate of Richard Arkwright who was one of the key figures in the industrial revolution) bought the house and after several generations of Strutts had lived there, the building was used as a school. The recent restoration involved a conversion to office use.
The entrance front is an impressive piece of Classical design, with a triangular pediment and columns giving weight to the central portion and interest to the whole facade. There is also a satisfying balance between the ground floor, its windows set in semicircular arches, and the floor above, which has windows with more elaborate surrounds (the central ones having small pediments of their own), to emphasize the importance of the rooms they light. What one might call framing devices – the pilasters at either end and the cornice at the top of the facade – give the design further coherence, as do details such as the rustication, used in restrained fashion on the ground floor. The skyline is set off by a quintet of carved bulbous urns. This show front is, of course, faced in stone. The sides are of much plainer brick, as one can see, just, in the picture. But it's a restrained kind of showiness, and the house would have been at home in its original setting (80 acres of grounds, apparently), as it is in its urban surroundings now the city has spread around it. Derby can be proud, and pleased, that the building has found a new use, and its restoration has made St Helen's House a worthy winner of a Georgian Group award for a reused building. It deserves its recognition.