An education in old building repair

by Joanna Daykin

The SPAB repair course has been running since the 1950s with the aim to introduce the philosophy of conservative repair and specifically the SPAB approach to repairing old buildings, alongside the benefits of on-going repair to preserve the fabric of the building.

Two days of site visits are sandwiched between lecture days in Holborn. The first day focused on the principles and philosophy of repair and subsequent days looked at materials, structure and building elements. The great and the good of the SPAB shared their experiences and knowledge on each subject through case studies and pithy anecdotes which kept us all entertained as well as educating us.

The site visits helped to consolidate what we had been learning and provided an opportunity to discuss with other delegates about there work and experiences.

Wilton’s Music Hall
SPAB Repair Course spring 2015_Joanna Daykin

The first visit was to Wilton’s Music Hall in east London.  Five terraced houses built in the 1690’s were knocked together and the music hall built in their gardens in 1858. It’s glory faded as music halls went out of fashion after the Victorian era. The building was refashioned as a Methodist mission and later as a rag warehouse. By the 1970’s it was in a seriously dilapidated condition before what is now Wilton’s Music Hall Trust took the project on, fundraised and repaired the building. The current repairs, designed by Tim Ronalds Architects and undertake by the contractor William Anelay Ltd, have very gentle approach to conservation and are aiming to retain the magical atmosphere which makes it feel like one has stepped back in time.

The Temperate House at Kew Gardens

SPAB Repair Course spring_Kew Gardens_Joanna Daykin
Opened in 1863, the Temperate House is the largest surviving Victorian glasshouse in the world. Since 2013, Kew has been undertaking a five-year restoration project on the Temperate House and its surrounding landscape. The works involve new services and plant installations (including a biomass boiler), cleaning and redecoration of the glass house structure and a new education programme to improve visitor engagement. The huge scale of the project is daunting and co-ordination of the building process around precious and rare plants makes it even more tricky. The project team includes; architects : Donald Insall Associates, contractor : ISG plc., engineers : Ramboll.

SPAB Repair Course spring_Kew Gardens2_Joanna Daykin

Manor Farm Barn, Frindsbury Extra nr Rochester
The barn was constructed as part of a wider monastic complex in 1403 to store tithes. It is believed to be the longest medieval timber-framed structure in Britain and is a very fine example of crown post trusses. The barn was subject to a number of arson attacks in 2003. The structure though badly charred and damaged, loosing a couple of end bays, was not destroyed. Now funding has been secured, temporary protection and urgent works are proposed to be followed up by more permanent repairs.

SPAB Repair Course spring 2015_barn Frindsbury Extra__Joanna Daykin

The local community will be included in the process and a number of apprentices will be taken on – teaching them timber framing using mediaeval techniques and tools. We discussed the merit of choosing to repair the barn in this way as opposed to using modern materials and techniques along with the decision to removed the charring from the existing beams. The opinions between members of the group were widely varied as each had a slightly different aspect which they valued most i.e. education in crafts, honesty in repair, good new design. It was interesting to hear no one opinion prevailing above the others and it will be fascinating to see how the repairs to the barn are undertaken by the heritage team.

SPAB Repair course spring 2015_barn Frindsbury_Maggie Goodall

Knole House
Knole is one of England’s largest houses, possibly a calendar house with its 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances and 7 courtyards. It’s quality Elizabethan and Stuart architecture is reflected in its lavish interior with ornate plaster ceilings, panelled walls and decorative joinery along with it precious collections. Originally an Archbishop’s palace, the house passed through royal hands to the Sackville family – Knole’s inhabitants from 1603 to today.

Knole House2
The National Trust is carrying out one of its largest repair programmes with the support of Heritage Lottery Funding. The work is being carried out in three phases over eight years. The first phase of  external repairs is complete. The next phase is to open a new Bookshop Café and visitor centre in 2015 and continue to build a world-class conservation studio in which will facilitate the final stage of repairs; conserving the showrooms and there artefacts.


The current phase of works by architects Rodney Melville and Partners has is being undertaken by contractors Fairhurst, Ward and Abbotts. The works have used utilised every type of repair philosophy to achieve an accessible and useful buildings to meet the needs of the house and the trust. This has sometimes been to minimise maintenance, improve sight lines or create more visitor friendly spaces.
Knole House1

The Repair Course offers a great foundation for understanding what repair is and how to carry it out successfully. The next Repair Course in autumn 2015 is now fully booked but there are to bursary places left. For more information, please visit the Education pages of the SPAB website.


Set the Stage

by Charlie Wellingham

The Scholars were very generously invited to attend the SPAB’s 2014 Repair Course; a full time week of lectures from leading construction and heritage experts, which is held twice a year for professionals and home owners. The highlight of the busy week is always the site visits – when delegates get a chance to witness the practical application of the SPAB conservation philosophy first hand, and discuss some of the challenges that can occur when contending with the realities of site work within historic structures. The first of this year’s visits (and for me, the most interesting) was to Wilton’s, the world’s oldest surviving traditional music hall, in Wapping Docks in East London.

Wiltons Music Hall

Originally the property was 5 individual houses in an early 18th century domestic terrace, which were adapted and enlarged in various ways until 1850 when John Wilton purchased the land and constructed an enormous hall space across the garden plots of all 5 residences. Further acquisitions and ‘knock-throughs’ by Wilton transformed the former bedrooms and family rooms into a dense warren of front and back of house spaces to support the growing popularity of the hall. However Wilton’s ownership was a short one and by 1890 the hall became a centre for the surrounding Methodist community and it remained so amidst increasing dilapidation until 1940 when it was finally abandoned and left to decay. A compulsory purchase and demolition proposal from the council nearly proceeded in the 1960s until it was saved thanks to the campaigning of a group of passionate high profile supporters such as Sir John Betjemen and Spike Milligan, who recognised the cultural significance of this Victorian survivor. It was listed Grade II* in 1970, and finally reopened as a theatre and music venue in 1997.

The hall survives as originally built by John Wilton

The hall survives as originally built by John Wilton

This miraculous rebirth might sound like an expensive and time consuming project given the state the building was in, but upon entering Wilton’s it is clear that this was no highly-polished crisp and gleaming refurbishment; the spaces were occupied with a very ad-hoc ‘make do and mend’ mentality, more in common with squatting than reverent restoration. This gives the entire venue an evocative and ghostly atmosphere (where surface fixed theatre lights cast long shadows across peeling plasterwork, and the deeply textured tooled brickwork that grins through beneath), that seems both wholly appropriate and totally unique.

Seventeen years later and Wilton’s has grown into one of London’s most cherished venues, with a thriving roster of music and theatre, a bustling cafe bar, and a large participation and learning programme, run by Managing and Artistic Director Frances Mayhew (many thanks to Frances for leading the fascinating tour with the SPAB delegates!). Frances has now overseen several complex phases of work with Tim Ronalds Architects, including the structural repair of the hall roof, and will soon be embarking on the front of house works which will increase the amount of (and access to) community studio space. It was particularly interesting to discuss the conservation challenges of repairing the surfaces of a room without damaging the romantically derelict aged atmosphere of the space (an aesthetic that is now synonymous with the Wiltons ‘brand’).

Column at Wilton's

Column at Wilton’s

There is no denying that the worn patina of the rooms contributes to the fantastic building that Wilton’s has become but championing this single flavour (and falsifying the required new work with applied distress to complement the composition) can begin a concerning trend of aesthetic ‘taste’, where the layers of history are a commodity or asset, and may even be tempting to mimic or recreate for rival enterprises. An interior design fashion of exposed dusty brickwork is plausibly foreseeable in light of the success of Wilton’s and the public’s appreciation for its quirky charms. Already instances appear to be increasing in frequency – Asylum Chapel wedding venue in Peckham is another good example. It doesn’t take a huge leap to imagine a revived ‘Anti-Scrape’ movement being required to oppose a thousand proposed Wilton’s wannabes from taking the hammer to their historic interiors. So perhaps this revelry of ruination is acceptable when it is agreed to be ‘authentic’; when the presentation of a dilapidated space ‘as found’ is exactly that – the state it was in when it was recovered and rescued. And what of the new doors that have been hand-painted to match the scruffiness of its 18th century surrounds?

For me the beauty of these neglected surfaces, the tactile erosion which speaks more of the building’s history than any number of interpretation panels, is only increased by the complement of smart and appropriate new design, inserted as required to bring the building back in to use and presented honestly with no agenda to mislead. Does the falsification of the new surfaces amount to set-dressing for a make-believe environment?

Scholar Elgan Jones treading the boards

Scholar Elgan Jones treading the boards

As ever these decisions should be reviewed in their context on a case-by-case basis, and in the case of Wilton’s Music Hall I will concede that this conservation approach is appropriate, if for no other reason than a major source of the theatre’s revenue is as a film set! At the end of the day you only have to walk through that old terraced house lobby and through the small door under the staircase into the cavernously vast and unexpected historic hall to agree; a bit of whimsy and theatricality is exactly what is required in this breathtaking space.

The project certainly gave us all a lot to think about and debate – which is a critical part of our studies as Scholars! Many thanks to Frances and her team for taking the time to explain their journey as client, and the philosophical and practical challenges currently being tackled by the Wilton’s design team in this thoroughly unique environment.

P.S Check out this great blog that documents the on-going phases of work at Wilton’s.