I came to researching historic buildings by accident. All I knew was that I wanted to work with old buildings and play a part in their conservation. I had always loved history; I had always been interested in old buildings and always enjoyed the process of research. But it was only when I studied for a post-graduate in building conservation at the Architectural Association that I realised that there could be a career incorporating all these elements.
I started at the deep end, researching buildings for a firm of conservation architects. I was and am ostensibly an historian but my post-graduate in building conservation gave me that depth of knowledge required by architectural professionals.
Today my clients include architects, property developers, planning consultants as well as private home owners. The latter call on my services for many reasons; mostly just to find out the story of their house, but at other times it is to support a planning application or help settle a boundary dispute.
A house historian will look at dates, people and any stories surrounding the house and occupants. But in my work, I also look at what was on the site before construction, who built it, how was it constructed, for whom and why? What was the building used for, what alterations had been made in the decades / centuries since construction? I scrutinise architects’ plans, identify alterations and piece together how the building has evolved. This kind of research aids the restoration, conservation and building process. For instance it can determine the historical importance and relevance of architectural features and whether they can or cannot be altered or removed. Particularly if a building is listed, an in depth knowledge of the building’s fabric is crucial.
When I research the history of a house I begin by inspecting the premises and getting a feel for the structure. I will then source information at local libraries and archives e.g. maps, parish records, manorial records, electoral rolls, census returns and archived photographs of the building site or area. Depending on the building, a visit to the National Archives at Kew may be needed. In the case of an in depth architectural search, I always visit the Royal Institute of British Architects Library as well.
From these sources, and many others I call on, I can build and write a history of the building for the architects or owners. I often liken it to doing a jigsaw puzzle (but without a picture on the box lid). Each piece is important, but it is only when you put them all together that the full historical picture of the house is finally revealed.
One example of my work involved a house in St John’s Wood that had been lived in by a famous artist in the 19th century. It was assumed he had designed it himself and had had the entire building built in 1888. However, my research involving visual inspection and later documentary searches revealed the grand late Victorian house was built around a more humble but equally fascinating structure dating to 1825. The conservation / architectural result was that the intended extension had to be modified, but in the end the owner achieved what he wanted without disturbing the earlier fabric of the building.
In addition to researching buildings for planning purposes I also research homes for the owner’s sheer curiosity! I am often called in by people who have lived in and loved their home for decades and despite years of occasional delving hadn’t uncovered the full story of the house.
An example of this was a house I investigated on the river in Mortlake, which is reputed to be the oldest surviving building in the area. The listing description had it recorded as 18th century, which would have been impressive enough. However, my research into its structural past revealed its origins stretched back to the early 1500s. It was a house where politicians, poets, writers and tobacco brokers had lived. It was also a building that had undergone great change with whole wings being torn down and new ones constructed. All this was found in the course of my research in amongst drawings, photographs, leases and maps; giving the owners an holistic explanation of the home they’d lived in for nearly 30 years!
The work of a buildings historian is fascinating and very fulfilling. That’s not to say there aren’t humdrum days going through local tax records or frustration when some houses are reluctant to give up their secrets. But every house is different and it is the anticipation at the beginning of an assignment as well as the peaks of discovery and the satisfaction of the completed research at the end that is so compelling!
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Ellen Leslie BA (Hons) Dip Cons (AA) is an historian who researches and assesses buildings for building conservation and property professionals as well as private home owners (www.ellenleslie.com). She studied at the Architectural Association’s School of Architecture and attained the Postgraduate Diploma in the Conservation of Historic Buildings. Ellen had previously graduated with honours from Birkbeck College in Politics, Philosophy and History. She is a member of the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain (SAHGB) and an Affiliate Member of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation.