Although some architectural history courses were required in the degree program when I studied architecture, I spent a lot more time reading about contemporary architecture back then. When it came to anything from the past, my interest was primarily in the Modern movement. These days, I find it interesting to take a moment to learn something new and appreciate some styles of architecture that weren’t on my radar back in my college and graduate school days. I recently received a review copy of Great Houses of London which introduced me to the very best examples of grand, residential architecture within the city of London. Each example was originally built as a private home, but most have now become offices, embassies, hotels, or museums. However, they all retain key elements of their original grandeur. Some are stand-alone structures, but the vertical style of British terraced houses figures prominently. With those terraced houses, it’s interesting to note that while the exterior was typically simple and consistent with the entire, connected row of houses, the designs of the interiors were intricate, specific, and ornate.
The photos throughout the book display the beautifully maintained highlights of each house. I imagined walking through these spaces and wondered what it must have been like to live there and regard them as “home.” The photo at the top of this post shows the entry staircase from Home House on Portman Square designed by Robert Adam in 1775. That staircase replaced a previous one designed by James Wyatt and with its balanced symmetry and skylit glass dome above became a pinnacle of Adam’s design repertoire.
In some cases, I wished there could have been floor plans or section drawings included to understand the design better. Some grand rooms were taller than one story, and I was curious about how the plans were arranged. In the gallery at Apsley House shown above, which was a later alteration to the house by Benjamin Dean Wyatt in 1819 after the house was built between 1771 and 1778, the ceiling skylights show this to be on the top floor. The house also contained a stately drawing room with an ornamented barrel-vaulted ceiling and a gracefully curving staircase. It would be interesting to see how these features were arranged in the plans.
Of the several elaborately designed staircases shown from all these houses, two of the most striking are from 44 Berkeley Square shown above and from Astor House at 2 Temple Place shown below. At 44 Berkeley Square, the front facade of the house belies what’s found just inside. Designed by William Kent in 1730, the curves, ionic columns, and domed top of this layered staircase would inform a visitor of the kind of detail to be found throughout the rest of the interior. At Astor House, the craftsmanship of the woodwork in the staircase culminates in a carved frieze just below a cove-curved, glass-enclosed ceiling, and detailed carving is found throughout.
The book progresses chronologically, and at the end there were a few surprising, modern designs. For example, the Richard Rogers House in Chelsea maintains its traditional exterior while the inside has been completely recreated in a sleek, airy style. It was intriguing to see how these houses were used, changed, and maintained over hundreds of years in some cases. Reading about these historic homes provided a fascinating tour of a way of living that’s all but gone and an ornate style of design that’s well-worth preserving.
All photos from Great Houses of London by James Stourton, Photographs by Fritz von der Schulenburg, $65.00 Hardback, Published by Frances Lincoln.