In last month’s post I promised palace fronts, and I intend to deliver! I had a chance to visit some very different town houses during my most recent trip to England and Scotland, and so I thought I would share some pictures from this and prior trips, and talk about town houses. For this month, I’ll focus on the exteriors.
There were, in essence, three types of town house: freestanding, and then either palace-fronted or regular terraced houses. Freestanding houses were rarely built by Jane Austen’s time, and they did tend to be the domain of the rich and powerful. They had the advantage of more windows, which was key in an era where light either came from the sun, candles, or whale oil lamps, although of course the family would keep “town hours” and dine late to burn candles as a show of wealth!
Far more common was the terrace house. The term terrace or terraced house confused me at first (as an American I’d call them row houses), because when I hear terrace I think of fields planed into a hillside for farming. But this basically means they’re all joined in a terrace, with common party walls between each house.
Generally the way this worked was someone owned the land, individual house-sized plots of which would then be leased to a builder (long leases like 99 years were common). The builder was generally someone from one of the building trades, like a mason, carpenter, or joiner, who could handle his trade’s portion of the building and then bring in others for the other specialties. He had varying degrees of freedom in terms of what he could build. In some terraces, pretty much anything went, and so you can see places where it’s just a sort of hodgepodge row.
In terraces, restrictions were placed on the exterior to provide some degree of cohesion. My impression is that this happened more often in places like Bath and Brighton, particularly Bath, which really was the architectural innovator for the town house.
One thing that could make the terraced house different was its placement around a square. This provided some green space which must have been particularly refreshing in London’s coal smoke atmosphere of the time. It also gave children (if they were brought to town or to a seaside or spa resort) a chance to meet other children of their station.
The other was the palace front. Not all builders were tradesmen who took on one house or a few houses within a terrace. Architects such as Robert and James Adam, Sir John Soane and John Nash were doing work on town houses in addition to country houses, and they were aiming for something grander. The idea of a palace front was that a series of houses had one completely cohesive facade designed to look like a country house.
One of the places on my itinerary this year was Edinburgh, now also a World Heritage site, as I popped up to Scotland for a bit after I’d finished my open days marathon. I’d been there before but only a sort-of day trip (I took the sleeper train up and then a train back that evening) so I was excited to spend a bit more time there. That first visit I’d focused entirely on the old town, which is a spectacular medieval place with lots of really old buildings and narrow closes to explore, and entirely ignored the new town. Since then I’ve been much more interested in Georgian architecture, so it was time to check out the new town, because in Edinburgh, new = Georgian.
My destination there was Charlotte Square, to visit the Georgian Town House, and it was there that I learned the history of the new town. Edinburgh was expanding, and after the Jacobite rebellion they wanted a show of loyalty to the Hanoverian monarchy, so many streets are named for members of that family, including the square, named after the queen.
When Georgian architecture is done well, the symmetry provides a lovely, classical balance, with just enough architectural features to provide interest to the eye. Much of the early new town, however, was just plain bland. So they brought in Scottish architect Robert Adam, who was at the end of a long and impressive career, to do Charlotte Square. His palace front for the north side of the square shows the full potential of a terrace.
It features some of Adam’s trademark neoclassical detailing, but always with restraint.
I also had a chance to see his brother, James Adam’s Portland Place, and tour one of the houses there. It’s likely but not proven that Robert Adam was also involved, as you can see very Adamesque detailing on the front. As this was done in render, however, it’s lost some cohesion over time as some houses adjusted how much was rendered.
The interesting thing about the terraced houses is there was no clear social hierarchy in terms of who leased them (generally it was lease rather than own, although it would have been a very long lease). House size could be roughly measured by the number of windows across the front (i.e. three bays vs. five bays), but often people very high up in the ton were perfectly content with three bay houses. Nor did those higher in the ton necessarily flock to the most architecturally distinct palace-fronted houses. The interior was where you wowed your visitors, not the exterior.
They also absolutely lost all cohesion in the back, where lesser materials such as rubble stone might be used, and extensions often contained offices, additional small rooms (because of the need for natural light, these extensions could not take up the whole width of the plot; they needed windows that would face a narrow courtyard). Sometimes the stables would be all the way in the back, opening up to a smaller mews lane.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at different town houses. Next month, we’ll go inside!