All Change at 15 & 17 Fournier St
Over the last year, I have enjoyed dropping in regularly to fifteen and seventeen Fournier St to visit Jim Howett and observe the progress of the mighty works that have been undertaken there by the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust to reinstate these two gracious houses built by joiner William Taylor in 1726 – which were carved up to become a Mission House for the conversion of Jews to Christianity in 1878.
Jim and I always end up chatting in the attic room of number fifteen, lined with leaded casements, offering mind-boggling views to Nicholas Hawskmoor’s Christ Church, Spitalfields opposite, and where, over our heads, old notches in the beams reveal where the looms for silk weaving were once attached. Since the endeavour reaches completion this week, as foreman and architect, Jim was able to savour the moment up there in his light-filled eyrie above the rooftops, and look back upon a remarkable job achieved in partnership with Tim Whittaker, Director of the Spitalfields Trust.
“This is the last structural Georgian reconstruction that is going to happen in Spitalfields,” admitted Jim, with a tinge of disappointment in his softly spoken voice, because although these houses have posed an extraordinary exercise in deduction, it has been one that he has relished. With evangelic fervour, Christ’s Mission to the Jews tore the staircase out of the corner house, took out the walls on the ground floor to create a gospel hall and punched doorways between the two buildings to make them one – while subsequent factory usage and then a carve-up into flats in the nineteen eighties ravaged the buildings still further. “This reconstruction sets it back with a footprint as it was intended,” explained Jim, casting his eyes around the empty rooms in pleasure at the freshly sanded floors, new panelling, windows, shutters and doors made by joiner Aaron McGill. all connected by the tour-de-force of this entire project – the new staircase winding up through four storeys fitted by carpenter Pauol Cierny, constructed in the eighteenth century method, and to the design of William Taylor.
Entering the house this week was a rare engagement with time travel, to visit a newly constructed eighteenth century interior where the sawdust was still fresh and history waiting to happen. But when I first came here last Spring, Jim took me down into the cellar where excavations revealed remains of the dwelling that previously existed upon this site. Beneath the cellar floor was the ground level of a seventeenth century courtyard with a stone culvert that discharged water towards Lolesworth Field, gone centuries ago. Among the debris beneath the floor, Jim found quantities of charcoal confirming his belief that the land from here to Bethnal Green was back-filled with rubble from the Fire of London, raising the ground level by as much as two metres and burying a seventeenth century path below the cellar floor of an eighteenth century house. Ascending from the gaping muddy chasm of the cellar, the house was in disorder, doorways were being bricked up and holes cut in the floor. It was a composite of discordant spaces connected by eccentric arrangements that required you to walk into number seventeen to reach the top floors of number fifteen and go downstairs in number fifteen to reach the cellar of number seventeen – where the long-suffering residents endured living beneath a daily-accumulating layer of builder’s dust.
Yet I discovered a exhilarating transformation when I came back months later as the staircase was being fitted in number fifteen, spiralling up through the centre of the structure and restoring its spine. Unlike modern stairs in which the treads are supported on either side, the staircases of the eighteenth century were built one step on top of the next, supported by a central ascending beam – much more sturdy, as well as accommodating to the irregularities of an old building. When Jim first showed me his cherished staircase, it was not all there – you walked up and up, and then it ran out … But when I next returned, I was greeted with the triumphant news that the stairs had reached the roof and miraculously met the marks in the joists on the top floor where the original staircase had sat.
The sculptural quality of this fine staircase, adorned with spindles turned by Aaron McGill and barley sugar twists courtesy of Nichols Brother (established over a hundred years in the Hackney Rd), brings the building alive with dynamic energy. It takes you on a journey through differently proportioned spaces, all neatly panelled and flooded with light, to arrive at the lantern at the top. The layout of the rooms has been recreated and while there is a scrupulous attention to detail in all the work, idiosyncrasy is restrained – throwing emphasis upon the graceful flow of architectural space. Most importantly, the institutionalisation and its subsequent chaos is gone, humanity has been restored in the recovery of the sympathetic yet relatively modest domestic spaces which comprise this unusual corner house.
“I think we got the best out of all these people – there’s never been an argument, because everyone’s worked to their strengths” confided Jim quietly, almost speaking to himself in admitting his responsibility to his team. And realising that his own time to inhabit these houses, which have been his consuming passion since October 2009, is now at end, he added, “I’ll miss it.” Jim and I left the weavers’ attic glowing with sunlight and walked down through the empty panelled rooms, where the finishing touches were being made before everyone left.
Now the residents of number seventeen can finally hoover up the dust and the household spirits of number fifteen can experience a moment of peace, renewed and waiting, until the next wave of inhabitants arrive and time can begin all over again.
15 & 17 Fournier St restored.
As the Mission of Christianity to the Jews until 1947.
W.P. The Donor – he paid for the purchase of fifteen and seventeen to become a mission house in 1878.
The interior of the mission hall occupying the ground floor of number fifteen.
The new staircase at number fifteen constructed according to the method and design of William Taylor, the joiner who built these houses in 1726.
Detail of the spindles.
Pauol Cierny, from Slovakia, the Head Carpenter who built the staircase.
Surviving spindles from adjoining houses by William Taylor, used as patterns for creating new.
Aaron McGill, the Head Joiner, in his workshop where he made the windows, shutters and doors.
The Weavers’ loft overlooking Christ Church, Spitalfields. Notches in the beams indicate where looms were attached.
Petro Leanca, Carpenter from Moldova, who has worked on the house for the past six months, doing floorboards, doors and wall carpentry.
The previous property on the site is marked upon the Gascoigne map of Spitalfields from 1700 – above the “L” of hamlet.
In the cellar of number fifteen, two metres below current ground level, the sixteenth century culvert in the yard of an earlier building.
Rob Stroud in the finished basement where he and Hamish Lancaster spent most of the last year digging out the floor by several feet - “We’re well proud of this now.”
This is the light well in the picture up above – that Jim Howett discovered blocked with debris when he excavated to create a light well where one was necessary.
Looking up to Nicholas Hawksmoor’s spire, looming overhead.
Painter, Daniel Costea, arrived from Timisoara, Romania three weeks ago.
A fanlight discarded from another house in Fournier St.
The fanlight installed.
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