Town Houses Part 1

Town Houses Part 1

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!

Spencer House, a freestanding town house owned by the Spencer family (best known for Princess Diana).
Apsley House, the Duke of Wellington’s freestanding town house
Another freestanding house, the former residence of Lord Palmerston. It was a food truck parking lot, oddly, when I visited London in 2017, but in 2018 they were doing what looked to be serious restoration work.

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.

A mixed row of terrace houses
A mixed London terrace, where some have gone for that very popular Georgian feature: the bow window.

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.

The more cohesive Brunswick Square in Brighton. While London features a mix of stone, brick, and render in its town houses, Brighton is largely done in rendered exteriors.
Brighton’s render shows up beautifully in the seaside sun. Balconies with sloped roofs such as this one became popular in the late Regency / early Victorian era.
A London crescent. These became popular after the Royal Crescent in Bath was built.
A Georgian door. In a terrace where facade features were more restricted, the door was one place where some architectural flourish could be added.

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.

A London palace front. Note the central section with additional architectural features, including the Ionic columns.
Camden Crescent, in Bath. In Persuasion the Eliot family take lodgings there (then known as Camden Place). This palace is lopsided because nine houses were lost in a landslide in 1789. Of all English towns, Bath’s stone enabled it to have the greatest architectural cohesion, which has been part of what made it a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The John Nash designed Carlton Terrace, showing a render exterior and porticos with Ionic columns.

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.

New town, Edinburgh

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.

Robert Adam’s Charlotte Square masterpiece.

It features some of Adam’s trademark neoclassical detailing, but always with restraint.

Some of Adam’s neoclassical details

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.

James Adam’s Portland Place

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.

Backs of town houses in Bath

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at different town houses. Next month, we’ll go inside!

22 Responses to Town Houses Part 1

  1. Fantastic photos. I prefer the free standing houses, although they don’t seem to be as abundant. Thanks for sharing. I LOVE virtual travel. Oh, interesting to see Lord Palmerston’s house since I’ve been watching Victoria. I’m assuming it is the same?

  2. Well I learned something new today! Like you I didn’t understand the ‘Terrace House’ but now I do! Thank you. I must say the Brighton terrace homes look lovely, I’m sure Lydia would not have really noticed! Apsley House is very imposing and fits his persona well. Looking forward to the interiors!

    • Glad to hear I’m not the only one! It REALLY confused me at first because the books I was reading just took it for granted that the reader knew what it was, so I presume it must be very common in the UK.

      Brighton really surprised me the first time I went there. i was expecting it to be some sort of tarted up stag and hen seaside town but there is a lot of really lovely architecture left and most of the candy floss / arcade shenanigans are restricted to the pier.

      Thanks for your comment, Carole!

  3. I love all your photos, Sophie! I haven’t been able to travel too many places, but I really love architecture, so the more pics the better! Thanks! (Too many exclamation point, sorry! (and, another one))

  4. Thank you for another illuminating post, Sophie 🙂 I would have assumed the wealthier the person, the more bays they would want. Somehow, it’s comforting to know that wasn’t the case. I’ve only been to Edinburgh once, for a few days, but I loved it there. I hope you had a great time.

    • You’re welcome! I think a lot of the space thing had to do with all of the public entertainment venues, particularly earlier in the Georgian era with all of the pleasure gardens, but even later you still had places like Almack’s and all of the gentlemen’s clubs. So people could fully participate in the season with only some entertaining at home, and then as long as the interior was sufficiently grand and you had enough space in the main rooms it worked just fine (also from what I’d read they would PACK people into these houses…no fire marshal back then!). From what I’ve read the shift into fully private entertaining didn’t come until the early Victorian era.

      I loved Edinburgh, too! I was already making plans to go back in the future while I was there because I didn’t get to see everything I’d wanted to see.

  5. Oh-My-gosh! I love your photos. How interesting. I love your photos. These were fabulous and though I will never get to travel there, I feel like I can see these interesting placed through your eyes. Thanks for the delightful trip this morning. I can not picture these amazing buildings when I read a story about these places.

    • Aww, thank you so much, J. W.! It’s fun for me to relive my travels as I go back through photos, too. And that’s definitely part of what I like to do with my posts is help readers envision these places more when you read a story. I feel like I’m always understanding new context when I travel so I love to share. 🙂

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