PROPERTY : THE INS AND OUTS

PERIOD FEATURES 2: DOORS; The first thing to meet the eye in a house or room is the door, but it's often an unsympathetic replacement. Original joinery can still be discovered, or its tricks reproduced. Lesley Gillilan reports
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The Independent Culture
CHARLES Brooking was only three years old when his walks with his nanny through the suburbs of Surrey planted the seeds of an obsession with architectural minutiae. "Initially, I was fascinated by door furniture," he says. At the age of six, he had learnt to appreciate "the subtle mouldings, the texture, the age and the quality of construction" in a fine period door. By the time he reached his teens, Charles had a growing collection of knobs, knockers, key escutcheons, latches and letter plates into a museum and study centre. The Brooking Collect-ion, as it is now called, was started in a garden shed he was given as a 15th-birthday present.

"Everyone thought I was barmy," Charles says. "I was teased remorselessly at school." People continued to think he was one panel short of a full door throughout his early adulthood, when he spent much of his spare time scouring London building sites for bits of architectural history, saving what he could from the wreckage of progressive modernis-ation. "The destruction was ruthless and awesome," Charles says. "It was worse than the war. Whole terraces were biting the dust. In fact, the 1970s was one of my most fruitful door-collection periods."

In 1985, the Brooking Collection was recognised as an important architectural archive and a trust was formed to ensure its survival for posterity. Five years later, a permanent home had been found for it at the University of Greenwich in Dart-ford, and the job of moving 20 tons of wood and metal fixtures from the 13 sheds in the Brookings' garden in Guildford was under way. It has taken four years to relocate and catalogue the collection, which includes samples of doors, windows, staircases, fire grates, rainwater heads and boot-scrapers dating from the 16th century onwards.

There are 270 doors and 6,000 items of door furniture displayed at Dartford and the beauty of the collection is that it encompasses the entire spectrum of building genres from the stately home to the mundane 1930s semi. "The collection is intended as both a record and a source of reference," Charles says. "If someone is looking for a door for, say, a late-Georgian West Country house, they can come here, identify a door of the correct style and have it copied." Typically, this someone will have bought a period property furnished with featureless modern doors and a mess of aluminium letter plates, unsightly locks and plastic numbers and will be trying to reverse the damage.

When Henry and Jane Mee bought their late-Georgian villa, in Islington, north London, three years ago, every one of the original doors had been replaced by "ghastly" fire doors - slabs of stout timber inset with panels of wired glass. The Grade II listed, Greek Revival house had been in institutional use for more than 100 years (first as a hospice, then as a nursery) and the interiors had also been stripped of skirting boards, wooden window shutters and moulded door casings.

Henry put away his paint brushes (he is the portrait painter who recently immortalised the Princess of Wales) and devoted a year to restoring the property. "I wanted the house to look and feel as though it was a product of 1819," he says. Reinstating lost elements of period joinery was one of the keys to "making sense of the house as a whole". When complete, his masterpiece of reconstruction prompted a commendation from English Heritage.

Hiring a team of joiners, fitters and paint specialists, the Mees replaced the skirting boards (authentically marbled), the folding timber shutters ("fabulous security") and 20 interior doors ("of wonderful simplicity"). Henry considered it very important to restore the "social hierarchy" of the house.

"The importance of each room was denoted by variations in design," explains Kit Wedd of the Victorian Society. "The front door was the grand entrance and a symbol of status and the doors to the principal rooms would have been decorated with complex mouldings, but thereafter the doors become progressively plainer as you moved on to the kitchen or the upper floors."

People often make the mistake, she points out, of buying complete sets of identical replacement doors and sprinkling them throughout the house. "It subtly shifts the innate order of an old property."

The Mees' new doors are exact copies of the originals which, according to Henry Mee's meticulous research, would all have been variously moulded, four-panelled jobs, made of softwood and painted with a grained effect to look like hardwood. To satisfy fire and safety regulations, the panelled sections of each reproduction door are constructed from a thin layer of fire-resistant material sandwiched between two layers of timber.

Fire doors are not a requirement of all dwellings, but if you are converting a building, there is a stipulation that existing fire doors must be replaced with substitutes that will perform to the same standards (which means checking the spread of flames for a minimum of 30 minutes). A heavy door can do the trick but panelled sections make them more vulnerable - hence Henry's fireproof timber sandwiches. A cheaper alternative is to daub your doors with fire-resistant paint.

Each of the Mees' doors cost around pounds 200 to make. The simple brass handles and matching key escutcheons are faithful period reproductions bought from J D Beardmore in London (priced from around pounds 25 per set). And Henry paid an artist another pounds 200 per door to apply the mahogany-look paint treatment. He admits that it would have been cheaper to install solid mahogany, but using tropical hardwoods is not only environmentally unsound, it is also less authentic.

For most of the 19th and early 20th century, middle-class homemakers went to a great deal of trouble to disguise the fact that their doors were made of pine. Mahogany and oak were de rigueur, but both were expensive. Mahogany became less so towards the end of the century as more plentiful supplies of tropical hardwoods trickled into the country from the colonised forests of Burma and Brazil. But in most homes, softwood - usually cheap pine - was the norm. For decades, the wood-grainer was employed to cover up the very knots that modern homemakers are now so keen to expose.

Contemporary wood-graining, according to the paint-treatment specialist Paul Humphreys, is most commonly used when clients want a hardwood-look door to match an existing set made of the real thing. As well as mahogany, an artistic grainer can simulate lighter timbers such as oak, ash, walnut, satinwood, bird's-eye maple and even knot-free pine.

The Victorians also disguised softwood doors with dark mahogany-coloured stains, stencilled designs, tissue-like wood-grain papers or Anaglypta wallpapers embossed with wood-grain patterns. Another door-decorating trick was to apply a varnished collage of printed images. "Door panels were fertile fields for artistic decoration," says Kit Wedd of the Victorian Society. Some of the doors of Linley Sambourne House in Kensington (the beautifully preserved, 19th-century home of the Punch cartoonist Edward Linley Sambourne) are embellished with hand-painted foliage sprouting from oriental urns, mock-tapestry appliques, beaten brass panels and intricate brass fingerplates: all against a background of rich chocolate and olive- green paint. Such treatments are a little too elaborate for modern tastes, but Victorian-style decoration, transplanted into clean abstracts or brighter colour schemes, makes a welcome alternative to the ubiquitous stripped pine.

If you must denude your doors of paintwork, the conservationist's view is that hand-stripping is okay (beware of toxic, lead-based paints), but dunking old doors in tanks of caustic chemicals does not serve the long- term interests of a good piece of timber. While acids swiftly remove layers of oily paintwork and kill off woodworm, they also leach natural oils from the wood, bleach the natural colour, roughen the surface texture and weaken the animal glues commonly used in Victorian joinery. In a bad case of the latter, the door will, in time, fall apart. If carefully done, however, stripping is preferable to misguided replacement.

According to English Heritage, around half a million doors were removed last year. The figure is based on the volume of modern replacement doors sold by the DIY industry, but if you need more tangible proof, take a quick look round almost any architectural reclamation yard. The salvage market is crowded with homeless doors and doorless furniture. One of the largest yards, LASSCo (the London Architectural Salvage and Supply Company) in Shoreditch, turns away at least 10 doors a day. "They are very difficult to display, so we only take special doors," says Adrian Amos, reeling off a list of handsome specimens currently looking for new homes.

Frances and Danny Slattery of Victorian Pine, a smaller salvage firm in Brockley, south London, are less choosy. Recycled doors are their thing and they store nearly 2,000 of them - including shutters, room- dividers and cupboard doors. Stacked up like decks of giant cards, they are mostly pine, though the wood is often concealed beneath layers of original, cracked paintwork. The average unhinged door cost between pounds 40 and pounds 80; a little more, perhaps, for rarer types such as Gothic carved oak, Arts & Crafts stained glass, or anything with brass, cut-glass or ceramic knobs.

Buying any reclaimed door is greener and considerably cheaper than making a replica but the problem, Frances says, is finding a matching set that is both sympathetic to the house and fits the existing frames. (Modern doors are now made to a standard size of 6ft 6in by 2ft 6in, but in the 19th century they were made more or less according to whim.)

There is still a huge demand for stripped doors but trends come and go. The most recent, according to Frances, is an upsurge of buyers who are reinstating properties, once converted into flats, as single houses. "People come in and say, 'I bet you've got our old doors in here somewhere.' They never find them, of course."

But they'll always find something that literally opens up their rooms.

DOORS TO THE PAST

SUPPLIERS

Henry and Jane Mee's doors (see text) were made by George Lambrinos of Alpha Interiors (0181 455 6619). The London Door Company (0181 947 7771) specialises in custom-made reproduction doors for exterior and interior use and in a selection of finishes, including painted or stained with etched or stained-glass panels. Fire-check doors are also available. Another company offering a similar service is The Handmade Door Company in Redhill, Surrey (01737 773133). The Yorkshire Door Company (01274 568532) offers a range of period-style doors to order, plus an "Antiquator Finishing Pack", comprising an ageing stain to make new wood look old, wax, waxing pads and instructions on how to use them.

SERVICES

The following paint-treatment specialists offer a wood-graining service: Maria Farr (01749 813415), Harry Lendrum (0171 352 2584) and Hare & Humphreys (0171 833 8806).

REPRO DOOR FURNITURE

J D Beardmore & Co, Percy Street, London W1P (0171 637 7041), which dates from 1860, produces a range of 3,000 standard items of period hardware and can copy almost anything to order. Their range includes embellished covers to conceal Yale-style locks, brass door bells, painted ceramic and cut-glass door knobs and period-style letter plates of A4 size.

SALVAGE YARDS

Victorian Pine at 298 Brockley Road, London SE4 (0181 691 7162) and LASSCo in Shoreditch, London EC2 (0171 739 0448) are just two of hundreds of yards that sell recycled period doors. For a full list of nationwide outlets contact Salvo, Ford Wood-house, Berwick-upon-Tweed (01668 216494, from 20 March).

PLACES TO VISIT

The Brooking Collection of period features (see text) is based at the University of Greenwich in Dartford and open by appointment (0181 331 9897). A smaller collection is kept at Charles Brooking's home in Guildford, Surrey (01483 504555).

The Soane Museum, at 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2 (0171 405 2107) consists of two adjoining houses built between 1790 and 1837. The museum, the former home of the architect and designer Sir John Soane, is open from Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-5pm. An additional library of 30,000 architectural drawings, stored on microfilm, is open by appointment only. Linley Sambourne House (see text) at 18 Stafford Terrace, London W8 is open to the public until 31 October. Telephone 0181 994 1019 for details.

No 7 Blyth Grove in Worsksop, Nottinghamshire, now known as Mr Straw's House, is one of the National Trust's most unusual museums. The previous owners, brothers William and Walter Straw, lived in the Edwardian red- brick house for 60 years without making any concession to modern life. Preserved in a turn-of-the-century time warp, the house is a fascinating showcase of untouched period features. Most of the woodwork in the house is grained to look like oak, and some of the door panels also feature chequered paper borders designed to simulate wood inlay (for an example, see the photograph on page 66). For information/opening times, ring 0181 315 1111.

FURTHER READING

A ton of books on original features include Period Details by Judith and Martin Miller (Mitchell Beazley, pounds 14.99) and The Elements of Style (Mitchell Beazley, pounds 40; An updated version of this meaty "Encyclopedia of Architectural Detail" is soon to be reissued in paperback.) The Victorian Society (0181 994 1019) produces a series of Care for Victorian Houses guides, including a one devoted to doors (price pounds 3 ). The Georgian Group Guides (price pounds 2.75 each) include Doors and Paint Colour (0171 387 1720). Friends of the Earth (0171 490 1555) are soon to publish The Good Wood Guide, which details sources of recycled and eco-friendly timbers.

Henry Mee's restored four-bedroom house in Lloyd Square, London WC1 (see text) is for sale through Hampton's (0171 226 4688) at pounds 635,000.

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