The Romance of Old Whitechapel
During summer, I like to walk down from Spitalfields through Whitechapel to the river each week and see what is going on down there. On one of these walks, about eighteen months ago, I took a detour down Turner St at the back of the Royal London Hospital where I came upon an old terrace that was being rebuilt directly behind Will Alsop’s new Blizard Building. The houses drew my attention because something unusual was going on there – the materials being used in the renovations were historically appropriate and even the door fixtures were second-hand, so that rather than creating uniformity there was a subtle variance among all the houses of the modest terrace. There was a rare sensibility at work and I was fascinated. For the next year, each time I walked down to the river, I took the same detour and observed the progress of these buildings, pressing my nose against the window on occasion to observe the work inside.
As I stood on the corner of Turner St and Varden St and looked back, on the very first day I found this terrace, admiring the attics with pantile roofs and the clapperboard extensions newly added to the early nineteenth century buildings – I had a strange experience of deja vu. It was as if I had seen this view before, but yet the evidence of my eyes was clear, the work was newly done and incomplete in places. I knew that clapperboard houses were in the majority in the East End in the nineteenth century but none have survived to the present day. I kept going back to Turner St in order to unravel this puzzle in my mind.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, I met Tim Whittaker, Director of the Spitalfields Trust – while I was visiting Dennis Severs’ house. I asked him about the Turner St houses, and he revealed that he was in charge of these renovations himself and the clapperboard extensions were based on an old photo of houses in Wellclose Square – a photo reproduced in a book I had read in the spring of 2008. Now I knew exactly where I had seen this view before and the mystery was solved. He generously agreed to take me on a tour of the houses and even introduced to the householder against whose window I had pressed my nose, who fortunately did not recognise me.
The Spitalfields Trust began in the nineteen seventies to save the old houses in Spitalfields but nowadays they are casting their gaze further afield. These houses in Whitechapel built between 1809-15 had been derelict and uninhabited for more than fifteen years when they caught the eye of Tim Whittaker, who lives nearby in an old house in New Rd that he has been restoring himself for years. At the time, the Turner St houses belonged to the London Development Agency who had scheduled them for demolition to build a new innovation centre on the site. But Tim successfully proposed an alternative site for the innovation centre nearby on New Rd, opening the way to the Trust acting as an estate agent selling the houses to people who appreciated the quality of the buildings and who agreed to repair them well under the guidance of the Trust.
Thanks to a happy accident when an English Heritage listing offer was scared out of one of the derelict properties by a pigeon, the buildings were never listed. This allowed the possibility of adding the bathroom extensions and of raising the roofs to create an attic floor for each house. However, Tim, in supervising the project, has been rigorous in adopting an historically accurate vernacular aesthetic, which is how he came to base the design of the extensions upon an old photograph of houses long-gone in nearby Wellclose Sq. But his approach goes further than that, because the renovations have been undertaken using a cunning mixture of salvage and new materials, one of the houses even contains old bannisters given to the Trust from a house that had been demolished in Wellclose Sq.
Coming from a family of architects, with grandparents and a mother and a father who were all architects, Tim Whittaker describes himself wryly as “not an architect,” although his background and many years working for the National Trust as a surveyor, before he joined the Spitalfields Trust, more than qualify him for the role of supervising architect that he has undertaken for this inspirational renovation. I think Tim’s declaration means that he chooses to reject the role of architect because his work is about responding to the innate nature of these old buildings and resisting anything that might be an imposition upon their distinctive quality. There is something very exciting now about this elegant block of modest nineteenth century terraces holding its own beside Will Alsop’s strikingly modern construction next door, both benefit from the comparison.
These small houses were built at the beginning of the nineteenth century for lower middle class families – a surgeon, a sea captain, a plumber, a shopkeeper and a Chelsea pensioner among others – only one had a live-in maid. A hundred years later, this was an exclusively Jewish neighbourhood and another hundred years on the houses would have been lost forever, if it had not been for the Spitalfields Trust. I particularly like the austere (ungentrified) modesty of these buildings that speak eloquently of the lives of the ordinary working people who have lived here for two centuries. Too often these buildings that do not draw attention to themselves are the ones that get torn down. Tim’s ambition was to maintain and enhance the spirit of the neighbourhood, “I wanted to give Whitechapel back a bit of the romance it had lost”, he says, and he has succeeded splendidly.