As another British property price boom gathers steam, many are searching for their dream ‘period property’. But why do people favour certain architectural eras?
Ask a Briton to describe their ideal home, and the chances are their reply will include the adjective ‘period’. Depending on who you ask, however, the period in question might vary wildly.It might be Georgian, with its neo-classical stylings and clean, symmetrical lines. Or it could be Victorian – all about cornicing, bay windows and patterned brickwork. Others might prefer the light airiness of the Edwardians or the stark geometry of the modernist era.
But in a property-obsessed nation, where it sometimes feels as though estate agents’ lingo permeates every discussion, plenty of people have a favoured architectural era – whether or not owning such an edifice will ever be within their financial grasp. For some, it’s a deeply emotional attachment. “It’s all about what resonates with you and makes you think of home,” says architectural historian Ellen Leslie. “If you’re in any way interested in buildings, you’re going to have a preference.”
According to estate agents, the Georgian era is widely regarded as the UK’s preferred period as there’s something about the grandeur of great Georgian cities that means it’s always popular. For this reason, he adds, many places with large stocks of such buildings, like Edinburgh, Bath and Brighton, tend to attract London-style prices.
But for most Britons, however, this preference is entirely aspirational – owning a Regency townhouse or a Robert Adam country pile is something only to be contemplated in their wildest fantasies.
The Georgian period runs from 1660-1840 and “classicism was ascendant”, says Robert Bargery of the Georgian Group. “The art of town planning reached a point of high refinement, with elegant squares and terraces beautifying cities. Often there was an attempt to simulate the country, so terraces of townhouses resemble a country house, with projecting end bays and a central pediment.”
Key features include:
Geometrically proportioned rooms
Tall windows to let in light
Fanlights above front doors
It’s harder to find similar properties in places like Glasgow and Manchester, whose architecture reflects the fact that they boomed during the reign of Queen Victoria.
For many British urban areas, “period property” translates for most people as a Victorian dwelling. The era saw countless rows of terraced homes built to cope with massive movements of population to towns and cities, and helped shape the country’s perception of what a home looks like.
However, it’s not long since the style was far less favoured. Just as 20th Century architecture is now reviled by many like Prince Charles as “monstrous carbuncles”, Victorian design was once widely considered ugly and unfashionable.
Architectural styles changed gradually throughout these periods, says Chris Costelloe of the Victorian Society.
Key features include:
Bay windows introduced in 1860s
Houses more alike due to standardised materials
Built on rectangular grids, often one room wide plus corridor
Front door often set to one side
In the late Victorian and Edwardian period, houses were increasingly built with:
A growing preference for red brick
Stained glass in front doors
After World War II, people wanted modernism. Victoriana was synonymous with slums, soot and the kind of “dark satanic mills” described by William Blake. Decrepit late 19th Century terraces were bulldozed to make way for new, clean properties with indoor sanitation. In those homes that survived, fittings like fireplaces and tiles were chucked out – to the bitter regret of latter-day vendors for whom the words “original period features” are like manna.
But fashions change. In 1958, the poet Sir John Betjeman and the architecture guru Nikolaus Pevsner set up the Victorian Society to save the glories of the age from destruction. Thanks in no small part to their efforts, the period’s aesthetic charm is once again widely appreciated.
It isn’t the only era whose reputation has been resuscitated.
At the time of their construction, the inter-war suburban “Metroland” homes that housed commuters and their families were loathed by the cultural elite as vulgar and shabby. In his 1939 novel Coming Up For Air, George Orwell described a street of these properties as “a prison with cells in a row. A line of semi-detached torture chambers”.
Recently, however, they have undergone a reappraisal. Groups such as the Royal Institute of British Architects have hailed the influence of the Art Deco and Arts and Crafts movement on homes from this period.
The 1930s saw an explosion in suburban development, says Henrietta Billings of the Twentieth Century Society.
“Inter-war suburban housing turned its back on urban slums and instead fuelled aspirations of a new way of life: home ownership in quite leafy surroundings. This style of housing took design elements from the Arts and Crafts movement, but relied on mass production to make such houses affordable.”
These houses typically have:
Mock Tudor timber beams – often stuck onto the outside
Steeply pitched roofs
Stained glass panels
They are often semi-detached with a garden at the back and front
Some have a garage attached
More importantly, ordinary families have come to value their spaciousness and convenience, says Cook. “They used to be very unfashionable, but now people appreciate them,” he adds.
And admirers of post-war modernism – whose detractors, chief among them the heir to the throne, have long associated it with grim tower blocks and urban decay – are staging a fight-back, too, proclaiming the aesthetic virtues of post-war optimism and communal living.
Many of the bold, idealistic structures of Le Corbusier and Erno Goldfinger are now listed. Flats in Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in west London – once a byword for crime and inner-city blight – have sold for up to £480,000.
Just as enthusiasts for Victoriana rallied to preserve the era’s buildings, the Twentieth Century Society was formed in 1979 to “safeguard the heritage of architecture and design in Britain from 1914 onwards”. Estate agencies like The Modern House specialise in selling modernist – or, to adopt a recent euphemism, “architect-designed” – homes.
Those with an affection for concrete at least have plenty of affordable options on former local authority-run estates the length and breadth of the UK. Others on a median salary, who prefer more traditional styles, have fewer realistic options – unless they are prepared to resort to new-build pastiches that borrow design features from earlier eras.
Famously, the Prince of Wales backed the construction from 1994 of Poundbury, a neo-Georgian development on the edge of Dorchester, Dorset. The experiment sought to recreate architectural principles from a bygone age, but it has been derided by some within the design establishment.
According to Harriet Harris, senior lecturer in architecture at Oxford Brookes University, it’s unlikely such estates will ever win the kind of affection generated by their Georgian precursors.
“Most serious architects do think these pastiches do negate real design because they are not innovative,” she says. But that’s not to say the public will necessarily agree. According to Cook, such pastiches have no trouble selling.
Phrases like “mock Tudor” are sneered at by design critics but remain popular with buyers. So too are “Barratt-style homes” – synonymous with the 1980s Channel 4 soap opera Brookside.
Still, many buyers continue to seek out the authenticity a vintage home offers. As long as they do, the search for a period home will remain a common aspiration in a property-obsessed nation.