Let's talk "restoration"

Undershaw has again risen to the top of the discussion chart with the recent news that a judge has permitted a further hearing to take place on the validity of the present school plans for the house.

In the local press, the school laid into John Gibson of the UPT, accusing him, if memory serves, of a lack of respect for the democratic process. That's just a tantrum on the part of the school. Decisions taken by government (at all levels) are often challenged in court (we just don't always hear about it). Governments and other public authorities are not always right and one of the joys of being in a democracy is that we have the right to challenge those decisions. If anything, Mr Gibson is showing the utmost respect for the democratic process by using the tools that it offers rather than laying back and doing nothing.

Undershaw some years ago (before it was purchased by DFN Foundation)
It should also be remembered by supporters of the school that if Mr Gibson had not shown such a "lack of respect for the democratic process" in the past - the house would already have been carved up into residential apartments. The school owes him (and UPT supporters) a debt (no matter how grudgingly) for the chance to have a school there at all. Few objected to him opposing a property developer but it suddenly became more emotive when a special needs school was the institution being opposed.
Undershaw recently (hotel extension demolished)
People do need to try and see beyond the school and its pupils. Mr Gibson is not, in my opinion, opposing a school as such. He is opposing what he feels is a third-party that would cause the house irreversible damage. He would act the same way if some rock star wanted to buy Undershaw to turn it into a huge garage for his car collection. In other words, the identity and aims of the third-party are not all that relevant. This is not about opposing the educational aims of the current owner but about defending the historical integrity of the house.

Now you should not take my remarks, no matter how much you are tempted, as those coming from a sycophantic supporter of Mr Gibson. My preferred option for the house was always that it be returned to its original purpose (i.e. a private dwelling). If that is not an option then a school is probably something that Conan Doyle would have supported himself as a great believer in education. For me it is the detail of the school's plans that I cannot support. Unlike Machiavelli, I cannot support the notion that the end justifies the means.

It's possibly a bit late to describe my target audience but be aware that I am not addressing the supporters of the school who support it for its own sake (and whose interest in the house's former occupant is probably slim). I am speaking to Conan Doyle (or possibly Sherlock Holmes) fans who are split between those who support the school and those who don't. I don't expect to convert anyone from their current position with this post. What I do hope to do is present another perspective and perhaps manage the expectations of both pro and anti supporters about the outcome of all this work.

Recently I have seen remarks from the pro-camp that the house will be restored to 90% of what it would have been in Conan Doyle's time and much focus has been on the restoration of the study - for which the same level of restoration is implied. It is towards this latter endeavour that a new set of Sherlock Holmes pastiches is being produced. Clearly the figure of 90% has just been thrown out there for emphasis as it is demonstrably incorrect - depending on your definition of 'restoration' and that is what we need to look at now.

'Restoration' has a strict dictionary definition of course but very few of us trouble to check before we use the word - so confident are we that we know it inside out. The end result is that the word is being used and many observers and protagonists are confused as to the definition of it in the minds of those deploying it.

So, are we talking a total restoration or purely a restoration of fabric? The social media comment that Undershaw would be restored to 90% of what it would have been in ACD's time can clearly only refer to fabric if it is to be even remotely taken seriously. Why? Well a 90% restored house in every respect (i.e. furniture, ornaments, Conan Doyle actual or replica knick-knacks etc.) simply could not function as a school. The practical requirements of a school preclude that level of restoration. So, if you think that's what 90% means - think again. It can only refer to the fabric of the building - walls, floors, ceilings, doors etc.

The study, around which a lot of the media attention is focussed, is a case in point. There are, to my knowledge, only two extant photographs of the Undershaw study. Between them they show about one-third of the room, focus on Conan Doyle's desk and immediate surround, and are, naturally, in black and white.

You cannot build a faithful restoration from that. Even if you could, it won't happen. Unless things have radically changed - the study is marked out to be that used by the head of the school. From a purely practical standpoint it cannot be faithfully restored (beyond its fabric) and also be suitable for the incumbent head to execute the duties of his/her office.

Also, people talking about the restoration are largely talking about the house. Undershaw was more than a house. There was a stable which, until quite recently was, passage of time aside, exactly as Conan Doyle would have known it. It is now being converted. So one of the few original features has been removed. The authentic is being removed to be replaced with, in some respects at least, educated guesswork.

Do I imagine that the school will be halted in its plans? Not really. Do I think a court will force a modification of those plans? I hope so.

What I do want to do is drive home to people that if you think the end result of this will be an Undershaw as Conan Doyle knew it - you're destined to be, to some degree at least, disappointed.

Written by Alistair Duncan
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  1. Have you seen any comments or information as to whether Stepping Stones has any sort of historic preservationist consultant on staff with regard to Undershaw? Has there been any accounting, that you may have seen or heard, of where collected monies are being applied? With these issues being unaddressed, any claims of 'restoration' seem to be mere flights of fancy on anyone's part. I have heard and read that the stained glass windows will be repaired and restored, but no mention of the who, when, and how, nor of the cost, and how it will be paid for.

    1. I have no such information. I'm not exactly an insider.

  2. Hi,
    For the information of your readers I can confirm that we have had a heritage consultant as a member of our team from the outset of this project who has provided reports and advice. In addition we have worked closely with the local authority conservation officer. We have received no money collected for the purpose of restoration from Conan Doyle or Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts. We are in the process of identifying who will retire the windows, all of whom have worked on Grade 1 listed buildings. Once the cost is known I will let you have this information in case any of your readers would like to make a practical contribution. The repair and restoration of the old house continues to be funded exclusively by the DFN Charitable Foundation at the present time. As a school we will do our best to ensure the building is presented as sympathetically as possible. We are not in a position to create a museum nor would this be appropriate. In the meantime work continues on site removing the extensive rot found in the house which has allowed us to repair the roof making it watertight. I hope this information clarifies the position.