Written by Duncan Marks
Recent times have seen the closure of some of York’s most iconic shops and restaurants – Mulberry Hall, Scott’s Butchers, Cox’s Leather Shop, Bulmers, The Willows restaurant. As independent retailers, they have helped shape York’s individuality, and reader’s responses in the local Press show they will be dearly missed. In August 2014, Robson & Cooper, the leather emporium that had traded at 14 Lendal since 1911, was added to the list of departing stores following the death of its co-owner and manager, George Myerscough.
A ‘pop-up’ event in mid-January 2016, in association with the York Conservation Trust and AOC Archaeology, allowed the general public to explore 14 Lendal through tours operated by volunteer students from York University’s Department of Archaeology. While far from a scientific study, the choice of language used by visitors during these tours in describing their response to the building offers insight into how such initiatives engage the public with the possibilities of conservation.
Considering it to be an important York landmark, the York Conservation Trust purchased the Grade-II* listed 14 Lendal in 2014 and is currently deciding how best to use the site in a way that is sympathetic to its fabric and history. The building itself dates from c.1714, when Alderman Henry Baines built it as part of a pair of terraced townhouses. Famous residents include Sir William Wentworth and his family, presumably using it as their city residence to accompany their newly-built country pile, Bretton Hall, near Wakefield; the young astronomer John Goodricke, and Michael Barstow, who is the likely source of Baroness Orczy’s 1905 novel, The Scarlett Pimpernel.
Internally, many of the early-Georgian features remain, including the high-arched doors and frames, panelling and dado rail, complete with its half moon motif running along the first-floor landing and staircase. Indeed, the historic use of the building over time has left a mark on its fabric, helping to bring the story of the house to life during the public’s tours. This includes: a Walker’s of York iron kitchen range from the mid-nineteenth century in the cellar; the rails of the changing rooms on the ground-floor, which would have been used by Ms. Annie Chapman’s clientele when it operated as a ‘Court Dressmaker and ladies tailor’ in the early 1900s; the first-floor Georgian panelling and, in the front rooms, an Art Deco fireplace and mid-twentieth century safes of the former CO-OP Insurance Society, and, on the second floor, David Bowie and Small Faces newspaper cuttings and gaslight piping above what would have been workbenches used by Robson & Cooper leather repairers. There is even WWII graffiti in the former coal store, presumably doodled while sentries sought shelter from cold nights when on duty defending the City’s Communications HQ at the nearby Guildhall during the Blitz.
York Conservation Trust invited AOC Archaeology to use 14 Lendal for a ‘pop-up’ event for the general public in mid-January 2016. It showcased new archaeological techniques and provided free tours of the building hosted by a handful of volunteer students, such as myself, from the University’s Department of Archaeology.
We were amazed at the interest in the building, with over 1,000 visitors coming for the tours over the course of the eight days that the ‘pop-up’ event took place, including a good representation of YCAA members and current MA in Conservation Studies postgraduates. If nothing else, it certainly shows local residents’ hold a firm fascination with York’s historic buildings.
This opportunity to research the building’s historic use and development, and then share this on the tours illustrated the importance of the research skills used in the Desk-Based Assessments on the MA in Conservation Studies course. It also highlighted the connection between this type of research and a historic building’s signs of structural development still visible today. The latter was of great interest to the public on the tours too, with many intrigued and postulating why a passageway should have been punched through the ground floor of this resplendent Georgian terrace, as it was, for unresolved reasons, at some point between 1822 and 1852.
The tours also showed how members of the public conceptualise the function of historic buildings in the past as well as their potential future uses through conservation. From the types of questions that visitors asked over the course of the tours – when more and more information of 14 Lendal’s former tenants was being found on an often daily basis in the archives (and from the knowledge of visitors themselves), which then helped form a more detailed ‘house biography’ to act as a narrative framework for visitors – it was clear that in identifying parts of the 14 Lendal with its historic tenants, the public were greatly aided in registering the building’s change of use and form over time. The public would then often use the history of 14 Lendal to reflect upon wider issues in social history, both in local and national contexts.
Most visitors, having never previously been beyond the Robson & Cooper leather shop on the ground floor, were surprised and enchanted to find Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian historical layers still evident throughout the rest of the building, and consequently described 14 Lendal in language such as a ‘time capsule’ or ‘hidden gem’. However, a minority of visitors also expressed their disappointment that the building had been allowed ‘to fall into such a state’ or simply had ‘become a ruin’. The language they used here reflects that the experience of the tour is likely to have marred their memories of Robson & Cooper in York. In doing so, it exposes the risk that can arise when a private space is opened to the public in ways that it was not previously intended to be (and, in this case, never authorised to do so by former owners and tenants). This raises intriguing ethical questions of the rights of the public in their engagement with what is, in the case of 14 Lendal at least, a nationally listed building.
In terms of what should be done next with the 14 Lendal, some visitors thought the Robson & Cooper building should become a museum, although of what, was often a moot point; others expressed a preference for the building’s preservation in its dilapidated but historic state, considering it a truer reflection of a ‘historic house’ in comparison to National Trust and English Heritage sites that, as tourist attractions, overtly seek and rely upon public engagement. It implies that the unreconstructed (possibly even ‘un-conserved’!) condition of 14 Lendal heightened the experience of the visitor, making it more personal, albeit in a voyeuristic way, than established restorations, which once more returns us to realm of the public/private dichotomy.
Only time will tell what plans York Conservation Trust hold for the building. However, due to the high level of public engagement when presented with the opportunity to see behind the scenes of an upcoming conservation project in York, it might be hoped that this will inspire more of York’s iconic buildings, great and small, to be opened to the public (however fleetingly) when they come to be given a new lease of life before being hidden away from public sight once more.