Old Street in London. H. W. Brewer [?]. c. 1880. H. Pitt, engraver. Source: Stevenson’s House Architecture, Fig. 116. Click on image to enlarge it

Commentary by J. J. Stevenson

The Great Fire destroyed old London with its "post and pan" houses of wood and plaster, whitewashed every three years; which had in old times given it the name of the White Town. That terrible lesson made peremptory the orders which had been frequently passed, but little observed, since the time of James I., that all houses should be of brick. London in its enormous growth, which began after the Restoration and has continued ever since, spread itself over the country, and absorbed outlying villages and towns. All the houses were built in the new style, which applied the rules of Classic, as far as they would conveniently go, to building in brick. This style continued in a process of natural change and growth till the time of George IV.

At first it retained something of Gothic picturesqueness, as appears in the old street, now destroyed, which led from the Strand to the river, near Waterloo Bridge. The narrow windows, at the corner of the house to the right, show a common feature of the style, due to the old Gothic ideas still influencing the builders, quite at variance with the Classic rule that all windows in a row should be equidistant and of equal size irrespective of the size of the apartment which they lit.

Gradually the style became more correct. The windows were made uniform, not only in the same house, but in the whole row. As the houses were built by the yard for sale, there was no reason for making one different from another. They lost their individuality, and the process was encouraged by the foolish building conditions of ground landlords, in- sisting that streets should be built uniform, according to an elevation which they furnished ; so that in time the style was degraded to the dreary uniformity of Gower Street.

Yet it is a true style, correct and in harmony, to the smallest particular. Every moulding is right in its own way, and tells its place and date in the gradual progress. It avoided bad taste. The highest compliment that could be paid to art or ornament in that age, was that it should be "chaste," till architecture in fear of offending became absolutely dull and colourless.

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Stevenson, J. J. House Architecture. 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1880.

Last modified 17 July 2017