History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

07 January 2008


Why should we even care about lost houses? In England for instance. Aren’t there enough big old houses for visitors to visit? No. Not when you realize that each house is a treasure chest of stories or, in some cases, a Pandora’s Box.

My original interest in the subject came when I discovered Anna Sproules THE LOST HOUSES OF GREAT BRITAIN for $3.50 at the Erie Street Bookstore in Cleveland. At the time I was looking for the answer to a question that was key to the opening of my book in progress: Could a great house burn to the ground or would all that marble and stone act as a fire retardant? In case you are wondering the answer is yes, a great house can be reduced to ashes in less than a day. (From several online sources I determined that when marble is caught in a hot enough fire it will change to quicklime. Something similar happens to granite.)

The most memorable example of destruction by fire in Sproule’s book is Alloa House. Alloa was the stronghold-turned-mansion of the Erskines the earls of Mar of Scotland. The history of Alloa I runs from 1497 until 1800. Defoe visited Alloa in 1720 and mentions its conversion from fortress to home in his book Tour of the Whole Island of Great Britain.

Having survived through war, absent owners and seizure (and return) by the British Government the “agent of [Alloa's] final destruction” was a servant who used a lighted candle to look under a bed for something missing. The bed linen caught fire and the flames quickly spread. The local creek was dry and by morning the house was a ruined waste. Alloa II was built thirty-five years later but all that remains of either house today is the old tower which survived the 1800 fire. According to Anna Sproule the story of loss by fire has been “repeated time and time and time again north and south of the border.”

Having found a satisfactory answer to my question I put the book away until recently when I was trying to decide how to pare down my collection. Lost Houses held my complete attention for an hour (that is until the phone rang). That was enough to convince me that it was definitely worth keeping.

The book abounds with the history of houses and their owners, many of them familiar to those of us who spend a good part of our day in Regency England. Almost all the houses now lost were extant in the 19th century and include: Deepdene, Berkley and Devonshire House, Clarendon House, Montagu and Northumberland House.

Yes, Anna Sproule’s book introduced me to the subject of lost houses. To be honest, much more information is available online. My favorite website is www.lostheritage.org.uk., Mathew Beckett maintains that over 2000 houses have been lost and another website says that 1700 of those 2000 have been destroyed in the 20th century. This is in England alone. There are separate linked websites for Scotland Ireland and Wales. Fire is no longer the reason. Taxes and development are the main culprits.

Here is an example from the Lost Heritage- England’s Lost Country Houses linked above. Derwent House in Derbyshire was builtin 1672 on the site of another house and went through a number of owners ranging from a farmer to the Duke of Norfolk before its final use as a youth hostel in the 1930s. It was “compulsorily purchased” and destroyed six years later in 1944 to allow for completion of a reservoir to serve the Midlands. The picture is from the last phase of its existence.

I have lived in twenty different houses from childhood to 2008. I know two of them are no longer in existence and two are gravely threatened. One that has been destroyed is on Kodiak Island in Alaska, the smallest of all twenty I called home: a two bedroom, one bath duplex. It was my first experience of life beyond the East coast. I loved those three years and even though we moved to San Francisco next, I was sorry to leave.

The other house that was destroyed was as far east of the east coast as Kodiak is west. It was in San Juan, Puerto Rico and was the biggest house I have ever lived in – big enough for a pool table in the “family room” along with all the standard family room furniture. The dining room would seat twenty-four and did. Besides the living room, there was an additional room called the Rattan Room that ran half the length of the house which had six bedrooms and six bathrooms.

It was originally built as home to a Navy Admiral during World War II and later became a BOQ, then a child care center, then an Officers Club until it was reclaimed for use as a residence when the Coast Guard took over the residential base. While Paul was assigned there we did lots of entertaining (at our own expense, I assure you your tax dollars were not wasted) survived hurricane Hugo and tried to parent two teenage sons who viewed San Juan as a tropical paradise. Isla Grande, as the base was called, was destroyed in the late 90’s to make way for a container port.

The two houses that are gravely threatened are worth saving. They are on Governors Island in New York Harbor and were built in the late 19th century, designs that were used extensively by the Army. Although they can be found on several military bases these houses are two of about fifteen similar houses built between 1840 and 1912 in a circle (called Nolan Park, photo at right). As you study each one you can see the change in design over the sixty year period ending with the wrap around veranda that is an element of many late Victorian homes.

The island is a seven minute ferry ride from Wall Street and had the only golf course in Manhattan. I loved it there and would have been happy to live there forever if the Coast Guard had not decided that it was just too expensive to maintain.

How many houses have you lived in and have any been lost? Have you seen or lived in any historical homes that are no longer in existence


Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

A topic near to my heart, Mary. I hate to see the lovely old homes and buildings torn down for development. We bought a little Eastlake Victorian (circa 1888) and restored it and when we sold it this summer, my heart broke (but with a growing family, we were squeezing in).

But I know by the restoration we saved that little house for another 50 years or so, maybe 100 if we are lucky.

I see to many go down and be replaced by ugly. ;-(

8:10 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Was adding on to your Eastlake Victorian not an option? Or did you feel like it was just not right to change the original.

I have a friend whose family lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright house. As the family grew they moved becuase, well, you just don't add on to an FLW house.

Sorry to say that the first thing the new owners did was build an addition...

8:44 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks for a great post Mary. Every time I look at the pictures in Lost New York, I cry. I cherish the few vestiges of Old Dutch New York, Colonial New York and Gilded Age New York that still exist. It would be devastating if the houses on Governor's Island were torn down to make way for whatever they're planning to do out there. I must make plans to go out there this summer.

9:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a bit sentimental about old houses too, but not to the same extent. I guess that must be an American thing? There are too many old houses over here (UK) for me to get too worried about it. Our house is from 1853, but thats quite standard in our town. You have to be medieval to get noticed around here!

10:04 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

I'll have to put Lost New York on my list -- is it a book or website or both?

Jo a -- One thing you are on target about is the age of houses that are appreciated -- your Victorian would be a treasure here. I imagine there are lots of houses in England that do not deserve preservation, but I hate the thought of losing something that hides (or holds) so many stories. To this day where I live now they will identify a house by who used to live there -- even after ten years --to my mind it is a way of remembering people now gone.

10:13 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

It's both Mary. Lost New York is a book by Nathan Silver and then there is a web-site called Lost New York http://www.lostnewyorkcity.com/

10:22 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

what a fascinating, thought-provoking post, Mary. I have no attachment to any house except the little just-barely Victorian in San Francisco where Michael and I have lived for almost 24 years (with and without Jesse).

In the decade since my dad's death, tho, my mom has moved from our Long Island split level to a gated older persons' community in New Jersey to an assisted living facility outside of Philadelphia -- each time taking a subset of the furniture, pictures, and stuff, and each time rebuilding her environment around her so that it feels like the same home (only smaller) within a week. I find myself oddly moved by that, and wonder how I'd manage if I were in her situation.

10:53 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a great topic! I love old houses (and I think the definition of "old" changes with where one lives--what's old on the West Coast in the U.S. would be comparatively new on the East Coast and very new in Europe). But there's so much history in a house that's even a few decades old. I've lived in the same house for my whole life (with the exception of college). It isn't particularly old, but I'm very attached to it and am slowly in the process of fixing it up. My family's history is woven into the property.

11:44 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Well, we could have added on to our little Victorian, but in the end, it was the school system that would not have changed . . . the house in in the old part of town . . . and sadly, along with other aspects of that location, the public school that goes with it is struggling.

1:04 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Pam, I would say that if you have spent twenty-four years in the same house you have not had a chance to get attached to many others.

I think that changing neighborhoods is one of the key reasons that houses are lost in the US, Kathrynn -- not because of taxes as in England.

The same house Tracy? Has it been in your family for more than one generation? While I agree that there is a lot of history woven into a house just a few decades old I must admit I do not see much historical value in the second place we called home in Virginia -- a five level split level -- the definition of suburban and boring.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

We must be on the same wavelength, Mary, because I drafted my post for this Wednesday on a recently lost treasure in NYC. It just breaks my heart when the developers destroy our history and our heritage to build another uninspiring block of condominiums or add yet another Gap or Starbucks store.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the steamrollers and bulldozers and people named Trump and Macklowe have no intentions of tearing down the Morris-Jumel mansion up in Hamilton Heights, or the Old Merchants House on East Fourth Street.

I always thought the British were better than we are at preserving architectural treasures, but evidently, that's not the case.

Mary, how did the new residents manage to build an extension to a Frank Lloyd Wright house? It's a crime not to have had such a building protected under landmark commission laws.

2:14 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

My parents bought the property a year or so before I was born, Mary. It had a weekend cottage and a guest cabin at that point. They built the main house when I was a year old, and they were very involved with the design, so it really feels woven into the fabric of our family.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

My friend's family sold "their" Frank Lloyd Wright house in the late 50's -- I don't know when the drive for historic preservation grabbed the public's interest but not that early.

Tracy, I have spent my lifetime drawing houses I would like to live in but none have gone any further than my imagination. How wonderful that your parents got to actively participate in the design.

Amanda, I want to read that post. I can see that Lost New York is going to be one of my next distractions from writing

3:52 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

I was just thinking about this the other day. I found a website with photos from the little village in England where I lived as a child. But none of them were situated so that I could see the house where we lived. Our address was - The Olde Post Office - The Street - Kelsale, nr Saxmundham, Suffolk. Is that not a wonderful address. Our house literally had been the post office for the village for years. I have written to some of our friends and asked them to photograph the house for us if it is still there because I am afraid it will be gone before I get a chance to go back. I despise the loss of any of our history. As a vagabond Air Force brat home was a very strange concept for us. When my Dad retired from the service he bought my Mom the first house they had ever really owned. He bought it in 1970. She still lives there and any time we gather as a family there it is special, especially as we lost Dad then years ago. Friends from every time in our lives can always find us because my Mom has had the same address and phone number for all these years.

7:25 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Doglady, it sounds like you have a novel lurking in there. Do let us know if someone sends a picture -- I would love to see it.

What I take away from this discussion is the renewed awareness that where we live is as fundamental to our world view as how we live. Lost house represent more than the destruction of marble and mortar. You cannot lose memories but when a building is removed the more public "history" of the place and time gradually disappears.

4:44 AM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Just had to add to this, a day late (and always a dollar short!)

I lived in many houses as an army brat and two of them are historic. In what is now Edgewood Arsenal, MD, and then was the politically incorrect Army Chemical Center, I lived in an old farmhouse on the edge of the grounds for the Officer's Club. It had bricks dating in, I believe, the 1600s. (maybe 1700s-it was a looong time ago). Then the house and neighborhood I lived in in Ft. McClellan, AL, has now been designated a historic community and preserved in all its unique beauty.

You can see it here: http://tinyurl.com/yszr6j

And as a bonus you can get to see me as I was in high school!

I'm so very glad that Buckner Circle was preserved. My friend Barabara (mentioned in the blog above) and I want to revisit Edgewood to see if my house is still there.

6:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mary said "To this day where I live now they will identify a house by who used to live there -- even after ten years --to my mind it is a way of remembering people now gone."

Thats a lovely thought. The family before us (the Wibbleys) lived here for 50 years and of course left their mark on the house. Any dodgy DIY we find now is still referred to as a Wibbleyism.

2:17 PM  

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