Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Saving Holmes’ Home

For a while there, it looked as if Undershaw, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s onetime home in Hindhead, Surrey, England--where he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Return of Sherlock Holmes--was bound for an untimely meeting with a wrecking ball. (See The Rap Sheet’s previous coverage of the controversy here and here.) Now, however, that residence--which was built in the mid-1890s but allowed to fall into disrepair over the years--looks like it might be due for a makeover, instead, thanks in large part to preservation efforts by Britain’s Victorian Society. According to a news report picked up by the UK Web site Life Style Extra,

Waverley Borough Council has taken the unusual step of sending build[er]s to carry out urgent repairs on Undershaw, the Grade II-listed home of the Sherlock Holmes author, after an international campaign to save the building.

The house was specially designed by Conan Doyle for his dying wife, and Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts around the world have called for it to be saved after it has fallen into neglect.

Vandals entered the house through the broken windows, and the leaking roof threatened to rot the building where Conan Doyle wrote his most famous book, The Hound of the Baskervilles, in 1902.

The Victorian Society spearheaded the campaign to save the house, which Conan Doyle designed in 1896 after his wife Louisa contracted tuberculosis and was given a few months to live.

He bought the plot of land in Hindhead, Surrey, for £1,000, because the area was said to have a healthy microclimate which would help convalescence, and the site was sheltered and sunny.

Architect Joseph Henry Ball built the house in 1897, Conan Doyle and his family lived there until 1906, when Louisa died.

Dr. Ian Dungavell, director of the Victorian Society, said that the owners, Fossway Limited, a company registered in the British Virgin Islands, had a duty to either maintain the house or sell it to someone else.

He said: “The fact that it’s so bad that the council considers that the only thing to do is organise the repairs themselves is very unusual. It doesn’t often happen. I imagine they will be sending the owners the bill.

“The owners are letting it get into a state of disrepair because their planning applications for
a conversion have been refused. They should either put it back on the market--but they might get less than they paid because of the decline--or they should submit different plans.

“But while that’s being done they should keep up the maintenance of the house.” ...

He added that the building was significant because Conan Doyle had had a hand in designing it, and because of the international importance of the author.

And he said that other authors, including
Bram Stoker and Julian Barnes, had been inspired by the house, making it part of the country’s literary heritage.

“[Conan Doyle] wrote
The Hound of the Baskervilles there. Julian Barnes set part of his novel Arthur and George there, and that was shortlisted for the Booker prize. Bram Stoker visited it when he interviewed Conan Doyle and wrote about the house.” ...

The Victorian Society is still waiting for a decision on its appeal against the Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s refusal to upgrade Undershaw to be a Grade I-listed building, putting it in the top three per cent of Britain’s buildings.

RDA Architects, which put forward the plans on behalf of Fossway Limited, refused to comment on the matter, saying that the property was likely to become the subject of a court case.

You’ll find a news release about the Waverley Borough Council’s short-term plans for Undershaw here. Historical photographs of the property can be found here.

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