Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Building the Vanished City: Conservationism in Turn-of-the-Century London

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Building the Vanished City: Conservationism in Turn-of-the-Century London

Article excerpt

Demolitions in late-nineteenth-century London were interpreted by topographers and antiquarians, and these interpretations found expression in the works of the municipal government. The demolition and rebuilding of the city over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries coincided with a growing interest in London's "vanishing" material heritage, an interest that by the end of the century gave rise to groups devoted to recording traces of the "disappearing" city. The texts of this recording project enabled London's government to assert its authority and give order to a city cluttered with old buildings--to modernize London as an "historic" city.

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In June 1899 The Art Workers Guild of London performed a masque at Guildhall that celebrated the transformation of London from a soiled "creature of shreds and patches" into a new and monumental city for the next century. (1) Essential to London's imminent greatness was its "wealth untold," its "rich historic garment" that placed London among the major cities of the past, such as Thebes, Athens, Rome, and Byzantium. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, London had lost her looks: "By creatures fell" London was "tormented and made mean," and her "rich historic garment" was "torn and old." In order for London to take its rightful place among cities of the past and present, it had to be renewed--it had to be become a modern historic city. For Frederic Harrison, an active proponent of urban redevelopment in London, (2) such a renovation would be achieved through the demolition of the "old, poisonous, and crumbling" parts of the city, and the preservation of the "sacred" and "historic" (427). What Harrison presents as a clear and certain distinction between the "historic" and the merely old, however, was very much in question in the debates concerning redevelopment in late-Victorian London. Opponents of redevelopment argued that many of the "old" and "crumbling" buildings at stake in "improvement schemes" were as worthy of preservation as Tudor palaces and Wren churches. William Strudwick's photograph (ca. 1872; see Figure I) illustrates how such "crumbling" parts of the city could be revaluated as "historic": the photograph depicts an old City house as part of the clutter of London, surrounded by rubble, timber, and waste, and seemingly next-in-line for its due demolition. However, the photograph's caption--"Pope's House"--identifies the building as the home of a canonical poet, gives the house a value that transforms the picture of old buildings into a glimpse of imminent catastrophe, and instructs us to appreciate the loss. This picture and its caption suggest that literary associations make for history, that "historic" buildings are invaluable, and that such buildings (in the words of Harrison) should be "taken out of the arbitrary disposal of the present," out of the fluctuating political, economic, and social contexts that reduced these buildings to mundane and disposable property (449). However, this picture illustrates another way such buildings were revaluated: the "inimitable, irreplaceable" quality of such buildings was also signified through their demolition and implied absence--through their "vanishing" rather than their preservation as historic sites.

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This paper examines how published images and texts such as that of Strudwick's "Pope's House" functioned in debates surrounding urban conservation and redevelopment in turn-of-the-century London. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the wide-scale razing and rebuilding of central districts of London were viewed as solutions to the city's social and economic problems: in demolishing built-up areas of London, slums and traffic congestion would be replaced by "healthy" business, shopping, and residential areas serviced by transportation systems) The "Pope's House" photograph, reprinted in 1903 as part of an article on London demolitions, is one of innumerable records of old London published in the late Victorian period by architects, preservationists, antiquarians, artists, and topographers who described the areas under redevelopment as "vanished" or "disappearing" London; they presented their own essays, photographs, histories, and drawings as testaments to a built environment going, if not already gone. …

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