Thursday, January 12, 2012

Undershaw House

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Steel True, Blade Straight

If I had told you that the home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), where he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905) still stood, what would you expect?  A museum?  A shrine?  And if I added that it was here that he entertained the creators of such literary masterpieces as Peter Pan and Dracula?  That Virginia Woolf was a guest?  Wouldn’t you expect people waiting to see it?
Wrong.  How about converting it into some tacky apartments, instead?  Proving that America does not have a monopoly on Philistinism, we learn the following from The Folio Newsletter:
Undershaw, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's home in Hindhead, Surrey, is the subject of a legal bid by campaigners aiming to prevent it from being converted into flats. The house, which overlooks the South Downs, was built by Conan Doyle in 1897 for his wife Louisa, who suffered from ill health. After her death a decade later, he sold it. The house is virtually untouched from the period and retains such features as the family coat of arms, which appears on the impressive stained glass windows. Undershaw also remains significant to fans of Conan Doyle as the place where he wrote many of his most famous works. With continued uncertainty about its future, however, it is in a state of neglect and has been boarded up because of recent acts of vandalism.

The Undershaw Preservation Trust claims to have identified a buyer for the property who wants to restore it to its former glory as a single family home, but has so far failed to convince the local council to stop developers from pushing forward with plans to convert the property despite its status as a listed building.
Again and again we see this callous disregard for our shared cultural heritage.  Doyle himself drafted the first designs of the house, which rests on a three-acre lot, and passed his plans onto architect Joseph Henry Ball to complete. Doyle had installed an electric plant (rare in those days) and a railway in the grounds for the use of his children.                         
But what galls me more than the desire to convert this historic site into apartments is that the house has already been vandalized.  The urge to vandalize beautiful things (and this includes the scourge of graffiti, surely one of Satan’s means of assuring us he’s ever-present) is a tragic part of the human makeup that never seems to go away.
But this sad story also brings up larger questions.  When Neil Caffrey of Fossway Ltd bought the building for development, he could not have been ignorant of its historical significance. Does he simply not care?  Or does money trump history, art and the public good? (Rest assured your correspondent has a healthy respect for money.) 
And what of the vandals?  It occurs to me that vandals never desecrate ugly things, only objects of beauty or significance.  This is part of our overall cultural decay: the further we retreat from beauty, from our shared cultural history, and from the achievements of those who have come before, the more we grow to hate and distrust those things.  Be warned, it’s a short step from acts of vandalism to lives of barbarism.
Readers interested in doing something to protect Undershaw can find more information here:

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