Property: Style in suburbia
The long-scorned Thirties semi is finally making converts.
Saturday 08 August 1998
The determined refrain "I would never go for a Thirties house", is as familiar to many estate agents as "I'm looking for a Victorian terrace with original features".
The perceived shortcomings of the Thirties semi are well documented: they lack the relatively capacious rooms of many of the older period properties, and there is often a small kitchen - and the infamous "box" third bedroom. Louise Woodford, curator of the Geffrye museum in London, says: "The fireplaces could often be hideous, with brown tiles, although you could sometimes get marble or wood ones."
There has also been a little snobbery attached to the Thirties semi. "They were built predominantly for the lower middle classes", says Ms Woodford, and for some buyers they still represent an image of net curtains and suburban tweeness.
John Harrington and his wife Sarah-Jane had been adamant that they would not buy a Thirties house. When their two daughters came along, however, and they were keen for them to attend a particular school, the area in which they needed to find a property was effectively circumscribed.
They focused their search for a new home on 15 nearby streets and found that these were made up entirely of Thirties houses.
John says: "I always said I hated Thirties semis, particularly since I had seen so many that had been butchered. However, when we walked into this one we were extremely surprised at what we saw and were instantly smitten. We just looked at each other and said, `we'll have it'."
Much of the attraction lay in the fact that the house retained many of its original features.
"It had lovely fireplaces with dark wood surrounds, as well as the original picture rails. In the bathroom was a big, free-standing bath, still with its taps that infill from the sides. We must have looked amazed, because the old lady who was selling the house told us not to worry about the existing state of the bathroom - she would make sure that this was all replaced with a new whisper-grey bathroom suite for us. We quickly put a brake on that."
The Harringtons also found that the house had original Art Deco tiling. "All we had to do was to clean up the grout."
In Kent, Annette Stephens and her husband, Ervin, did not see themselves in a Thirties house - but ended up being seduced by one. "We had been looking for a Victorian house but all the ones we looked at were too pricey. We then decided, very half-heartedly, to take a look at a Thirties house in the same area. When we saw it there was instant attraction.
"It was on a secluded corner plot so I didn't have the feeling of living in one long row of Thirties semis, and it had a beautiful, mature garden. It was also built in the chalet style with a long, sloping roof, so the room layout was quite different from that of the typical Thirties semi's room structure."
The Stephenses stripped the floors, the doors, the skirting boards and the window frames. "We deliberately made the house as unfussy as possible."
Like the Harringtons, they now believe that having a rear reception room that fully overlooks the garden gives an edge over their former ideal home - a Victorian terrace with just a narrow stretch down the side of the house to the garden. The Harringtons say: "It also makes it very easy to watch the children."
The Stephenses added a conservatory to the rear reception room, so the French doors and flanking windows lead into another bright room.
Louise Woodford says: "Lighting was deliberately enhanced in Thirties houses, with their curved, suntrap windows, or wide horizontal ones that were meant to let in as much sun as possible."
So will there be a continued trend towards Thirties houses? Bryony Galpin, at the magazine Period House, has noted a burgeoning interest among readers.
She says: "Although the majority of our readership have Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian properties, we also have a many readers who live in Thirties properties. We have run features on Art Deco and on Thirties furniture recently, and we've been surprised at how popular they have been."
Thirties semis are certainly well represented in Britain's housing stock. Louise Woodford says: "They form a very important part of most suburban areas, in all their various forms - from the `Tudorbethan' style to the flat-roofed versions."
As couples are forced to look further afield than the urban centres, where Victorian houses may either be in less salubrious areas or command premium prices, Thirties properties make up a larger percentage of the homes available.
Serge Weinberger, of the north London estate agents Anscombe and Ringland, says: "Given a choice, a particular couple may choose a Victorian over a Thirties semi, but in many locations you are talking only of Thirties properties.
"Some of these areas are readily accessible to the city centre, yet still relatively close to the countryside, and saw big price hikes when prices started taking off.
This has now levelled off," he adds, "and the over-pricing by sellers has been nipped in the bud."
The Geffrye Museum (0171-739 9893)
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