The usual answer to that question might be ‘a room’ or ‘a corridor’, or perhaps ‘a cupboard’, but since writing about Christmas wreaths, I’ve been noticing the doors behind the wreaths, and started to wonder what we might do to improve the state of ours.
Our new house was built between the wars, a design era I’ve always been fond of, as it brings to mind my granny’s house in the Wirral, which was a rather grand example of the style. It had garden on all sides, parquet floors, and Granny’s handsome Arts and Crafts furniture (to which small hands were well suited for polishing, in return for pocket money). It felt like a good, solid house, what a child would draw if you asked them what a house looked like – door in the middle, chimney on the roof, like the Playschool house.
In our part of London, you can track the expansion of the city by monitoring the housing stock as you go further up and away from genteel Dulwich, which must have been a village before being swallowed by the sprawl of urban growth.
At the bottom of the hill, there are large, grand Victorian houses, most double-fronted with sweeping drives. A little further up the hill, the streets become terraced but even the most ordinary Victorian house is embellished with plaster mouldings and decorative tiles (see examples above and below).
I love the fact that somebody bothered to make these houses attractive, when it probably wasn’t at all necessary – yet someone took the time to add the mouldings and balconies and glazed tiles. Just a pity that so many of these houses are now in a shabby state, some ruined by pebble-dash – but you can see there’s a beautiful house crying to get out underneath it all.
However, the house we’ve just moved from, in a terrace dating from around 1905, had no attractive decoration inside or out – clearly by then, houses were being built quickly, to meet the demand as London spread outwards, with no pretence towards gentility.
Even moving up the street, you have a sense of builders running out of money and time, as houses further down are of lovely London stock brick, a soft golden yellow, but my old house was red brick, with a narrower frontage and looked decidedly shabbier.
Nobody took much trouble to make that house attractive – which made it an ideal blank canvas for renovation, as there were no original features to start with, I had no need to agonise over whether or not to take them out.
Now we are on top of the hill, surrounded by post-WWI housing, which perhaps lacks the grandeur of the Victorian mansions, but also lacks pretension – and compared to the poky two-up two-down, we have gained rooms with elegant proportions, even if they are missing the fancy decoration.
Our house had the heart ripped out of it some time in the 60s or 70s. It has no fireplaces, no parquet floor, no picture rails, no ceiling roses. Instead, it has woodchip on the walls, avocado tiles in the bathroom and PVC windows – and as I noticed as I walked along the road, ours seems to be the only house where the original door has been removed.
Most of the houses on our street have doors with stained glass roundels and matching side windows in a beautiful Art Deco style (see above). On the neighbouring street the doors are more rustic with arched windows and leaded panels, influenced perhaps by the Arts and Crafts aesthetic (see below).
Our door is a 1960s glass panelled job, and to add insult to injury, a PVC porch was added more recently. This leaves us with a dilemma – the porch is showing signs of wear and will need replacing eventually, a chance to get rid of a nasty 80s addition, but as a buffer to keep cold air out, and for security, it IS practical.
So what would be the point of replacing a 60s door with a 1920s repro, or an original even, if we can find one in a salvage yard, if we are going to stick another glass porch on the front to obscure it?
The 60s door may not be as nice as our neighbours’ doors, but it has a retro charm of its own – I especially like the textured glass panels which resemble tree bark.
I think I am resigned, then, to letting our house keep its 60s and 80s additions, and enjoy what we have gained – high ceilings, wide corridors, bay windows, and a dogleg staircase which lets light flood down into the hall from a picture window. In any case, I am convinced there is plenty of scope to make this house attractive, without having to buy a facsimile of an Edwardian front door or fireplace.
Footnote: I was mid-way through my first draft of this blog when I spotted that BBC4 were showing John Betjeman’s film ‘Metro-land’, in honour of the 150th anniversary of the Tube. I sat down to watch it, and realised Betj had pretty much already said all the things I wanted to say, only better. It’s still on the BBC iPlayer for a few days, although you can also watch the entire film on YouTube, apparently.