This year is the bicentennial of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The story first appeared in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, which was published in serial between 1819 and 1820.
To mark the occasion, I attended a dramatic reading of the story at The Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow, New York. The church itself features prominently in the story. It was an old feature on the landscape when Irving lived nearby in Tarrytown. Built in 1685 by Frederick Philipse, the Lord of Philipse Manor, whose vast patroonship extended south all the way to Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx, the building is still owned by the Dutch Reformed parish in Tarrytown.
In 1987, The Prince of Wales famously excoriated the shortsighted city planners and developers who rebuilt London after the Second World War. “You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe” he said. “When it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble. We did that.”
Decades earlier the weird-fiction writer and sometime Londoner Arthur Machen expressed similar sentiments. In the Spring 2019 issue of Faunus, R.B. Russell quotes a letter by Machen to Montgomery Evans around the end of the War. Machen writes:
And that brings me to the confession that I don’t curse the Germans very fiercely for their London destruction so far as the new buildings are concerned. It is we who destroyed London & wrecked the Strand, pulled down the Adelphi, abolished Clifford’s Inn (pre-Great Fire), built flats where Clements Inn once stood with green lawns. You can remember the old Café Royal: it wasn’t Germans who ruined it. And as for the Wren churches in the City: it was with great difficulty that the Bishop of London was restrained from pulling many of them down & selling the sites 20 years ago.
In 1950 American photojournalist Jack Birns crossed the Swiss Alps to document one of the last stagecoach services in Europe, running between towns along the Simplon Pass. He had first encountered this survival from an earlier age of transportation six months earlier while photographing a journey on the Orient Express.
Stagecoaches served a vital function for the remote Alpine towns carrying passengers, mail, and supplies as similar coaches had done for centuries. Birns’s report was published in LIFE magazine in 1951. Shortly thereafter the service was discontinued, the horse-drawn coaches replaced by motor-buses.
Photographs in the series capture the scenic, often perilous, journey over mountains, through villages, towns and cities, but they also capture the lives of the coachmen and their passengers.
The journey begins at Brig in Switzerland. Coaches would depart from there at 7:20 each morning and were due to arrive at Iselle in Italy by 6 o’clock in the evening. Passengers paid 7 Swiss francs and 40 centimes for passage, about two U.S. dollars in 1951, or twenty dollars today.
At certain points along the route sleighs were used instead of coaches to cross otherwise impassible snow. Pictured below: coachman Anton Bruchi (center) hands over the mail to sleigh driver Johann Zenklusen.
The road over the Simplon Pass was constructed by Napoleon’s engineer Nicolas Céard between 1801 and 1805. One of the four short tunnels built at the time has an arched extension for use when heavy snow interferes with travel along the main road.
Napoleon’s memory looms large on the Simplon Pass. Pictured below: Coach driver Edouard Theiler and a barmaid pose with a milk cup used by the Emperor at a hotel in Gstein-Gabi and the coin which he used to pay for it. Theiler had been driving coaches for thirty years when Birns met him.
Hospitality in the towns along the route was rustic and simple but no doubt much appreciated by passengers and coachmen alike.
End of the line: the coach crosses the Italian border and Theiler enjoys a well-deserved drink at a café in Iselle.
I never had the chance to meet Dennis Severs but he was a man after my own heart. The architectural historian Gavin Stamp described him as “one of those Americans in England who seemed to have arrived from nowhere, to have no past, no roots and who, so irritatingly, could not be placed socially.” I often suspect that my own London friends regard me similarly during the part of the year that I live there. Stamp wrote, “I first encountered him in the late 60s as the exotic friend of a Cambridge friend; he was then running horse-drawn open carriage tours around Hyde Park and the West End…and seemed, even for me then, a little too starry-eyed about the charm of Victorian England.”
In 1979 Severs bought a Georgian terraced house at number 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfields, East London. Built around 1724 during the reign of King George I it was an exquisite but neglected property. The East End in those days was a slum. Stamp called it a “run-down, but mysterious, inner suburb.” Instead of updating the house, Severs lived without electricity or twentieth century technology. He would later recall,
With a candle, a chamber pot and a bedroll, I began sleeping in each of the house’s 10 rooms so that I might arouse my intuition in the quest for each room’s soul.
Then, having neared it, I worked inside out from there to create what turned out to be a collection of atmospheres: moods that harbour the light and the spirit of various ages in Time.
Severs created a fictional history for the house. It centered around the fictional Jervis family. They were prosperous Huguenot (French Protestant immigrant) silk weavers whose fortunes waxed and waned during the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Severs filled the house with period furniture and artifacts and devised complicated tableaux in each room. He opened the house to paying guests: his audience.
The tour that Severs conducted, beginning in the cellar and ending in the garret, reveals an elusive narrative. The museum’s present-day hosts explain:
The game is that you interrupt a family of Huguenot silk weavers named Jervis who, though they can still sometimes be heard, seem always to be just out of sight. As you journey off into a silent search through the ten rooms, each lit by fire and candlelight, you receive a number of stimulations to your senses.
It is the smell of food that first aligns your imagination with the faces around you in portraits. Then…Mr Jervis’ wig, is it not the very same one that hangs over the back of his chair? His meal is only half eaten; did he abandon it when he heard us arrive?
Visitors begin to do what they might if indeed they had travelled through a frame into a painting: use what they sense to piece together the scene they had missed. Thus (and this was Mr Severs’ intention) what you imagine…is his art.
The experience is enchanting and occasionally quite eerie. It is part theater, part art installation. The motto of the house is Aut Visum Aut Non!: “You either see it or you don’t.” But it is also someone’s home—not Mr Jervis, but Mr Severs—who is simultaneously present and absent.
Before he died in 1999, Severs lamented that he had “come to accept” what he had “refused to accept for so long: that the house is only ephemeral. That no one can put a preservation order on atmosphere.” Stamp concluded: “Certainly not now Dennis Severs has gone to join the Jervises.”
But recent history has unfolded differently than either man imagined. More than a decade later this strange museum/theater/gallery is still open to visitors. Under the curatorship of Severs’s friend David Milne it is a thriving cultural landmark.
The narrative at 18 Folgate Street is not about the reign of Queen Victoria, per se. As one wanders through the rooms, and through time, one spends more of the silent tour in the eighteenth than the nineteenth century. But one emerges—yes, starry-eyed—into the Victorian period. It does not begin there, but ends there. Dennis Severs’s House is one of those wonderful portals, of which London has many, through which a person can enter a lost world.
Sir John Betjeman left a towering legacy as a poet and preservationist. He wrote about the touchstones of British life, both grand and homely. As an Anglican Christian, who credited his conversion in part to Arthur Machen’s novel The Secret Glory, he was particularly concerned with English cathedrals and parish churches. W.H. Auden described him as a man who was “at home with the provincial gaslit towns, the seaside lodgings, the bicycle, the harmonium.” Betjeman defended the branch line railways that fell to Beeching’s Axe in the 1960s. He was an advocate for Victorian architecture, which was deeply unpopular during most of the twentieth century. It is largely thanks to his campaigning that the magnificent St Pancras Station and Midland Grand Hotel were saved from demolition in the 1960s.
My favorite account of Betjeman comes from the Australian actor Barry Humphries. In The Telegraph, he writes:
John described himself not as a poet but as a ‘senior journalist’, and in his book-cluttered sitting-room, lined with green William Morris wallpaper and hung with pictures by Conder, Laura Knight and Max Beerbohm, he dispensed generous late-morning drinks, usually ‘bubbly’ in pewter tankards, to friends such as Osbert Lancaster, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and, not seldom, an Anglican priest or two.
It was a heady company into which I, a callow colonial, had been agreeably plunged. After a few drinks, and in an exalted mood, we would all repair to Coleman’s chophouse, in Aldersgate Street, where the atmosphere and appointments were immutably pre-war, and remained so until the enlightened mid-1960s, when the entire eastern side of that old thoroughfare was razed and replaced by council houses in the Brutalist style, now woefully shabby.
At Coleman’s we would all tuck into roast beef and Brussels sprouts, and drink more champagne. John always insisted on paying, which was just as well. His Collected Poems was a bestseller, and his masterpiece, the poetic autobiography Summoned by Bells, was a huge popular success, in spite of a few sniffy and envious reviews.
John was fond of exclaiming, with great merriment and that high, exultant cackle that his friends remember with such heart-rending affection, ‘Thanks to the telly, I’m as rich as Croesus!’ The poacher’s pockets in his jacket bulged with books and round canisters of Player’s cigarettes, which he liked to smoke because the ‘art work’ on the tins hadn’t changed in 30 or more years.
Sir John Betjeman’s former home at 43 Cloth Fair, overlooking Great Saint Bart’s, is owned by the Landmark Trust, which rents it out to holidaymakers.
In London it is not hard to find surreal juxtapositions of the old and new. One of the most striking, I think, is the view from the upstairs window in Dr Johnson’s House.
17 Gough Square can be found in the warren of alleyways between Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and Fetter Lane. It is the only surviving London residence of the lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). The perfectly restored eighteenth-century building has been open to the public as a museum since 1914.
Inside one can easily imagine oneself in the reign of King George II—until one looks out of the north windows. A massive glass and steel block of barristers’ offices at 5 New St Square fills the view. There is a moment of dislocation in time. One feels like a Georgian suddenly confronted with a temple to an alien god outside of his bedroom.
“One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.” That was the judgement of Yale historian Vincent Scully on Penn Station in New York after it was buried under Madison Square Garden.
The demolition of the original McKim, Mead & White-designed station in 1963 was an act of architectural philistinism unmatched in American history. It is often said to have galvanized the historic preservation movement but that movement has been on the defensive ever since. Year by year the immense stock of beautiful architecture in New York is whittled away at, and the number of ugly ill-considered developments increase.
It would be nice to reclaim some lost territory in the name of beauty and culture. Where better to start than Penn Station itself?
In 2014 a design by the Russian classical architect Maxim Atayants was selected for a new judicial quarter in Saint-Petersburg. The centerpiece of the project would be the home of the country’s supreme court which is being moved from Moscow.
Atayants submitted an austere Roman design nicely embellished with Beaux-Arts decoration. It would include a number of government buildings, a dance theater, and a pedestrian embankment along the River Neva. This would have been a splendid reaffirmation of traditional architecture in one of Europe’s most important cities. Unfortunately it was not to be.
For reasons that are altogether unclear approval of Atayants’s design was revoked in 2017, as reported by Peter Kellow. A modernist design was selected to replace it. Renderings by Atayants can be found on the internet; many appear below.
I dined with my Livery company this week in London. The Worshipful Company of Glaziers and Painters of Glass occupies a hall on the Southwark side of London Bridge. It stands, in fact, on the site of an earlier bridge.
There have been three crossings at this location since the thirteenth century. “Old” London Bridge was built in 1209 during the reign of King Henry II. Like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence it was covered with buildings and shops. The Chapel of St Thomas on the Bridge marked the starting point of the popular pilgrimage route to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.
By the eighteenth century “Old” London Bridge was in a decrepit state, hence the nursery rhyme, “London Bridge is falling down.” In 1824 work began on “New” London Bridge. It was designed by the Scottish civil engineer Sir John Rennie, who had previously designed Waterloo Bridge and the East India Docks.
“New” London Bridge opened in 1831 during the reign of King William IV. It served the City throughout the Victorian period and the first half of the twentieth century. But the introduction of automotive traffic greatly reduced its lifespan. By the 1920s the foundations had begun to sink. “New” London Bridge was replaced in 1967. Bizarrely, it was sold to an American oil magnate, dismantled stone by stone, and transported to Arizona.
The southern foundation of Sir John Rennie’s London Bridge remains in situ and intact beneath Glazier’s Hall. A recent renovation opened it up for use. So we had our cocktail reception there, in an atmospheric space containing the late-Georgian brick arches and York stone floor of a lost London Bridge.
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London closed in June of 2017 after 450 years in business. For the past 250 years the foundry has occupied premises at 32–34 Whitechapel Road. Big Ben was cast there. So was the Liberty Bell. Parts of the Grade II* listed building date back to 1670 when a coaching inn called The Artichoke stood at the site.
Now developers Raycliff intend to build a 100-room hotel on the property, absorbing the protected portions into a larger modernist complex. This would be a shame.
But the UK Historic Building Preservation Trust, an independent charity founded by The Prince of Wales, wants to buy the factory back. The Trust would run the site as a high-tech business, producing bells as it always has. According to the proposal:
In order to thrive as a working, forward-looking foundry, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry will diversify and update its bell casting techniques and materials while working to integrate the latest technology in 3D recording and output methods, acoustic recording and multispectral photography…
The Foundry will celebrate and share its prestigious history and the story of bell-making through educational exhibits and the creation of a nationwide archive of bells and their sounds. Apprenticeships and training programmes, together with school outreach activities, will be at the core of the new WBF.