11 September 2012

High Cross House, Dartington

Machines for living in:
Le Corbusier, Stuttgart 1927 and Lescaze 1932 (right)
In a post in June about the Bauhaus exhibition then running at London's Barbican Art Gallery, I mentioned that one of the first International Modern houses to be built in the UK was at Dartington in Devon (SW England). I’ve now had the opportunity to visit High Cross House which is the property of the Dartington Hall Trust, but, as the National Trust (NT) puts it: “… we are excited to be presenting it to the public under our management, working in partnership with the owners …”. The public reopening under NT auspices was in March 2012, and to quote the owners:
The National Trust will work with Dartington, owners of High Cross House, and others to build a community-led sustainable model of management and programming which will make High Cross House a local hub for contemporary arts and a new face for the National Trust.  
Following an initial period of showing the house as a “blank canvas”, there will be a rotating programme of exhibitions and installations by nationally recognised ‘names’ and emerging local artists. There will be simple organic catering on-site and an Art, Craft and Design led retail offer. 
Vaughan Lindsay, Dartington CEO, said: “We’re very excited by this new partnership with the National Trust. We hope the partnership will bring many new visitors to the estate to enjoy High Cross House, explore Dartington’s glorious grounds and gardens and find out more about our charitable programmes in the arts, social justice and sustainability”.

Philadelphia Savings Fund
Society Building (1929-32)
Leonard Knight Elmhirst (1893-1974) was the second husband of Dorothy Straight, née Whitney, (1887–1968) who had inherited her father’s fortune at the age of 17. In the 1920s the Elmhirsts took over the derelict Dartington Hall estate near Totnes in Devon as a vehicle for experiments in rural regeneration and in education. The latter would include the Dartington College of Arts (1961-2008) and the Dartington Hall School (1926-1987). In 1930 the Elmhirsts appointed William B. Curry as the School’s Headmaster. He had previously been head of the progressive Oak Lane Country Day School in Philadelphia. Oak Lane’s nursery had been designed by William Lescaze (1896-1969), a Swiss architect who had settled in the US after the First World War. This 1929 school building established Lescaze's reputation and he went on to design the first International Style skyscraper in the US (left). Curry persuaded the Elmhirsts to commission Lescaze, although based in New York, to design the Headmaster’s private accommodation, High Cross House, which was completed in 1932 and became one of the first Modernist buildings in Britain.

The 1989 description of High Cross House in Buildings of England Devon probably owes more to Bridget Cherry than Nikolaus Pevsner:
A stark geometric composition, the smooth rendered exterior concealing a structure of brick cavity walls with steel beams for cantilevers and wide spans (instead of the reinforced concrete originally specified, which was beyond the local builders). Long two-storey range to the road (originally painted grey-blue in contrast to the impractical white of the rest); entrance between garage and servants' wing and kitchen. Metal casement windows, mostly in horizontal bands. The main rooms project irregularly into the garden. Here the composition is more interesting: low SW study with rounded end and generous terrace on its flat roof serving the guest rooms over the garage; taller SE living room and adjoining dining room on a higher level.   
… The interior reflects the same aesthetic of abstract geometry: no mouldings - the smooth pressed steel doorcases were imported from America - the occasional curve, the play with different levels and with asymmetry, seen to good effect in the fireplaces with dark tiled surrounds, large marble lintels, and off-centre flues. The walls were originally painted in different tones (yellow and white in the hall, white and grey in the living room), not dead white throughout. ...
which contrasts with Pevsner’s much briefer comment in the earlier version, South Devon, published when High Cross House was only 20 years old:
… in 1933 [sic] the modern style arrived [at Dartington, buildings]… concrete plastered white, and as appropriate to Devon as they would be to California or the River Hudson, a symbol of enlightened internationalism, as it also directed the original staffing of the various departments of the Trust.
As well as the Headmaster’s House, Lescaze, together with Robert Hening, the Dartington Hall estate architect, designed a gymnasium, boarding houses, cottages and houses and the Estate Offices.

Visiting High Cross House today one comes away with the feeling that it would benefit from more curatorial input. Surprisingly the ‘retail offer’ does not extend to a Guide and although in one room visitors could tear off free descriptive sheets, the full set was not available except by photographing displayed copies. Contemporary (ie 2012) art from emerging local artists and craftspeople gives some life to what would otherwise be an empty building, as does the café, and generates some revenue presumably - I have commented here before about the maintenance problems posed by Modernist buildings (left)!  Admission is £7.20, by the way,  for non-NT members. But without too much effort or enormous cost, surely it would have been possible to recreate at least the Headmaster’s Study (below)? I can appreciate that despite the NT’s fascination with kitchens, in this case the latter’s restoration is probably impossible.

Is it that High Cross House, although located still in Dartington, is actually in a cultural no man’s land – the owners are happy to see the NT taking day-to-day charge, but the NT doesn’t want it to consume considerable resources by comparison with its other responsibilities?  Devon is a long way from London and Modernism (let alone Postmodernism) is a probably minority interest among the NT members who are Devonian residents or holidaymakers. The local NT’s Twitter output, NT English Riviera @NTRiviera, conveys the flavour. Perhaps Julian Fellowes could introduce the International Style and some Dartington location shooting into a future series of ITV's Downton Abbey, the current one now having reached the 1920s. There is a good precedent. In Evelyn Waugh's first novel, Decline and Fall, published in 1928, the socialite Margot Beste-Chetwynde wants to demolish her family house and commissions a young Modernist, Professor Silenus, to replace it with "Something clean and square." Modernism is no longer modern, after all.

High Cross House, Dartington, Devon, SW England, Sept 2012


Things have moved on since the post above was written three years ago.  The National Trust is no longer involved with High Cross House which remains the property of Dartington Hall Trust.  Downton Abbey finished its run without a flirtation with Modernism.  However there has recently been an opportunity to rent High Cross House through The Modern House estate agents.  They were looking for offers of £2500 per month and "...  potential tenants will need to make some alterations before moving in (a kitchen, for instance, will need to be installed)".  The informative brochure includes some archive images from Country Life:

No comments:

Post a Comment