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RESTORE, REBUILD, RECONSTRUCT?

Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 9th July 2015
If you own a property you will probably, if you are wise, have buildings insurance. Among the myriad clauses and exclusions that your policy contains, you are likely to find information about what your insurance company will pay out in the event of the destruction of your property – typically by fire, lightning, explosions or earthquakes, riot, civil commotion, labour and political disturbances, vandalism or malicious damage, aircraft or anything dropped therefrom, storm and flood, subsidence or heave.

It’s an intimidating list, but its purpose is clear – to show that, for most of us, we are well covered if the worst happens and we lose our home. Elsewhere you are likely to find the maximum amount the company will pay out for the total rebuilding of the property.

Any such rebuilding is probably going to be like for like. And the reconstruction would be expected to start as soon as is practicable. All this is very straightforward (as much as dealings with insurance and building can ever be); but what if what you want to rebuild hasn’t been lost in an insurable way but has either suffered almost total dilapidation or, worse, had been demolished many years ago?

There are several television programmes that focus on people who with vision or hubris (and sometimes both) but often with insufficient funds take on what most of us would see as a ‘wreck’. With Kevin McCloud or George Clarke or Sarah Beeny we follow the ups and downs of projects that would frighten away most right-minded people. Almost inevitably in these programmes the visionaries seem to have some sort of triumph at the end, even if it means compromising on their grand plans and usually vastly overspending on their budgets and punishing their credit cards.

People who take on such projects are to be admired, and we could do with more of them, more daring developers who can see the value of a restoring and refurbishing a run-down building. Over the years the Civic Society has seen too many applications to demolish perfectly good buildings to make way for inferior ones, just because the developer has calculated that they can make a faster profit out of demolition and replacement. We may point to the current application for the demolition of the Station Hotel (still to be determined) and an earlier one (refused) to demolish the former Girls’ High School.

Knowing how to deal with old buildings has long exercised people. For much of the 19th century it was fashionable for church restorers to look at an ecclesiastical structure not as something that had developed over the centuries with each part precious in itself, but, too often, as something that needed to be restored to a ‘perfect’ form – though what constituted that perfection varied from architect to architect. As William Morris wrote in the manifesto for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877, ‘those who make the changes wrought in our day under the name of Restoration . . . have no guide but each his own individual whim to point out to them what is admirable and what is contemptible.’

And what if your building cannot be restored as it is – or where it is – but should be preserved? We have all seen pictures of buildings (often timber-framed ones) being transported very slowly on huge lorries from one place to another. And, of course, there are around the country several ‘museums’ of buildings that have been rebuilt as attractive hamlets of structures brought from far and wide. The Ryedale Folk Museum is one such; others include the Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings at Bromsgrove, the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum at Chichester and the National Museum of Wales at St Fagans. York’s Castle Museum plays it safer with just shop fronts.

The Beamish Museum in County Durham and the Blists Hill Victorian Town at Ironbridge in Shropshire both have buildings moved from elsewhere, but they go one further; they are peopled with costumed actors (re-enactors, often) who take on the roles of people from the period that is being recreated. This can add an extra dimension to a visit (though it is preferable, perhaps, that they remain within their role and do not hover between the 19th and the 21st centuries as they interact with visitors).

One of the main inspirations for such places is in Virginia, where, with typical American swagger, ‘Colonial Williamsburg’ has been recreated. Once an important centre before and after the American War of Independence, Williamsburg was quickly overtaken by larger places and slumbered for a couple of centuries. Then, in 1926, the local rector decided that there were still some original buildings left and should be preserved. He mentioned it to John D Rockefeller Junior – who took the idea and ran (some say ran away) with it.

Not only were the original 18th-century buildings restored; they were added to. The largest buildings in the town – the Governor’s Palace and the Capitol Building – had long since vanished, so they were recreated, using as much research as was available (often not a vast amount) to give them some sort of ‘authenticity’. Other structures joined them, so that now there are several streets where genuine 18th-century buildings sit alongside new ones.

Odd as it may seem, it works; it is possible to get a real taste of how our American colonists lived in the past, helped by the many costumed ‘players’ who throng the streets and, for the most part, stay in role. So you can talk outside the apothecary’s shop to a woman rolling bandages for the troops fighting the British, join in an army recruitment drive and march on the Palace, and even have an audience with Thomas Jefferson. It’s a fine line they tread between reality and Disneyfication – but the backdrop of the buildings, real and fake, helps enormously to create the atmosphere.

There is something to be said for this type of total immersion in history, although architecturally it is perhaps not a model that is easily followed here, where, in any case, we have plenty of genuine historic buildings; and certainly William Morris would not have approved. And maybe Ripon (although it celebrates its Hornblower) is not yet ready to recreate its 18th-century Market Square . . .


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