5 February 2013

Georgian Terraces #2: The Crescent (that wasn't)

Plan of the Crescent, by Francis Jukes. From the designs of John Rawstorne. 

In 1795 William Hutton wrote that the Crescent 'will consist, when finished, of a superb range of twenty-three houses, elevated upon a terrace 1182 feet long and 17 high. [...] Only twelve houses are finished, chiefly in the wings, [...] the remainder [...] are now at a stand, owing perhaps, to the war with France, which has been the destruction of our commerce, caused about 500 of our tradesmen to fail, stagnated currency, thinned the inhabitants, and left in the town about twelve hundred empty houses, which has laid the spirit of building'.* The twelve houses that Hutton talks of were the more understated buildings separate from the Crescent (as seen on the left), the twenty-three houses that were planned to make up the Crescent were never begun; in 1808 the venture was described as 'still in the clouds'.*

Birmingham had finally succumbed to the allure of building a Crescent in 1790 when the grand scheme of architect John Rawstorne (Rawsthorne) was initiated by the builder Charles Norton. Norton appears to have had the idea for a Crescent, and it was he that leased the land from the Grammar School, but the skillful designs of Rawstorne seem to have made the ideas a reality. A Crescent is simply a line of terraced houses built in a curve, usually around an open green space. This kind of terrace seems friendlier, cosier, and creates a kind of locked in community; a safe middle-class haven, which may account for it desirability, as well as the fact that the larger architectural form was like a grand mansion, but for, in this case, 1/23rd of the cost. The first Crescent to be built was in Bath between 1767 and 1774 by John Wood the Younger (below), and many other towns, admiring the structure, began plans for their own over the next few decades, Birmingham being among them. But these grand schemes were, as Borsay states, 'fraught with difficulties';*** the uniformed nature of the building meant that there were no half measures, the developers needed the money for completion. Norton had completed the flat fronted wings by 1793, the year that war, one that lasted over twenty years, was declared with France, but, despite several attempts, the momentum could not be picked up for Birmingham's very own Crescent.

Royal Crescent, Bath. From Wikimedia Commons, by Adrian Pingstone.

As the years went on it became harder and harder for Norton's plan to be completed, there was still a fashion for Crescents; Brighton and Leamington Spa have ones built in the mid nineteenth century, but Birmingam, despite the housing depression caused by war, was still in business. The original sales literature issued back in those hazy days when the Crescent was first planned stated that there was 'not the least possibility of any future buildings ever excluding the inhabitants from a most agreeable prospect of the country'.* This was one of the main attractions of Crescent architecture, the original Bath Crescent had been built on a hill with splendid views, and Birmingham offered the same, Norton's land was near the newly built canal and would have looked past those waters to green fields, with a beautifully landscaped space in front. But the sales literature failed on its promise, the canal began filling up with wharves, and the view became a smudge of that green, the red of brick, and the black buff of smoke and coal.

1. East end of the Crescent.
2. Central part of the Crescent
3. West end with the west wing.
4. Suggesting how the elegant inhabitants might stroll the grounds.

If completed, Birmingham's Crescent may just have survived the wholesale redevelopments that took much of the Georgian landscape with them. The site was far enough away from the central city and the scheme so grand, that it may have avoided demolition.....possibly. The design was of the Ionic order and the bays flanked with pilasters with the hint of a Grecian temple at either end of the elegant curve, complete with pediment and rusticated base (see 1. above). The end and centre premises were to be particularly spacious and grand, they had five bays rather than the three of the houses between, and rustication and decorative swags can also be seen on the central section (see 2. above). The twelve buildings that were completed were the least grand, they were plain, yet comfortable Georgian terraces (see 3. above); they survived until the 1960s, in part becoming the Crescent Theatre (see below), but were later replaced with a custom built theatre.

Visit Georgian Terraces #1

The surviving houses of the east wing, with stuccoed fronts.

Lansdowne Crescent , Royal Leamington Spa (David Stowell) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Some dwellers of the built wings: Thomas Jones & Family - Thomas Attwood & Family - Charles Norton & Family - Martin Family
* References on request
** Andy Foster, Birmingham
*** Peter Borsay, The English Urban Renaissance: Culture and Society in the Provincial Town, 1660-1770

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