Property: Doctor on the House - Sins of the modernisers

Mouldings hacked away, marble smashed to bits. Jeff Howell digs up the evidence of 1970s building vandalism

"WE'VE all been there; we've all done it," grunts Bethnal Green Eddie as he pulls the runner along the batten, carving another short length of cornicing from the wet lime putty. We are talking about the damage inflicted in the name of "modernising" old houses.

How could anyone have been so shortsighted as to hack the plaster mouldings off a Victorian ceiling? It's costing me a fortune to put them back. BGE is not ripping me off - it just takes hours and hours of tedious, messy work. The lime has been slaking in a big plastic tub for a week, and is now the colour and consistency of double cream. Eddie ladles a dollop into a small bowl and stirs in a dash of casting plaster (plaster of Paris).

The casting plaster starts to set in a few minutes, so timing is critical; the lime is trowelled on to the ceiling, and the shaped metal runner is slid along a timber batten nailed to the wall, pulling the stiffening lime mix roughly into shape. Then it's scraping all the tools clean and repeating the process three or four times, building up the cornice in layers; and then moving a metre along the wall and starting on the next stretch. It's a slow business.

When the cornices were first run in, in 1872, the guy was getting tuppence an hour. BGE's hourly rate is somewhat higher, which is why it is easy to get annoyed with whoever it was chopped the things down in 1972. And today I am feeling especially irritated with this unknown previous owner, because I have just discovered what he did with the marble fireplace out of the front room.

Having written a piece for these pages only recently on the virtues of a tidy entrance, I determined to put this one in order. While Eddie was cornicing in the hallway, I was out front, breaking up the patch of crumbling concrete which the estate agent humorously described as the front garden.

I began levering the slab up with a pick, breaking it with a lump hammer and bucketing it to the skip. The concrete was weak, thin stuff laid on an uneven bed of hardcore. In fact, the hardcore was proving harder to pick out; it was broken red bricks mostly, probably the missing chimney breast, another favourite target for modernisers. But then I came across a cube of smooth white stone. Then another, and another, this time with a curved edge and carved detail. It couldn't be, could it? Surely, not even in the dark 1970s could anyone have been so stupid as to smash up fine Sicilian marble for hardcore.

But there it was, spread over one corner of the front garden, 500 quid's worth of mid-Victorian fireplace - columns, corbels, mantle, the lot. I was so disheartened I had to stop; the very thought of chucking it in the skip was depressing. I went indoors to share my grief with Eddie.

He's right. We've all done it, and people continue to do it - fireplaces, slates, sash windows, cornices - and whatever the age of the house it's always a mistake. I mean, whoever thought 1960s houses would become "period properties"? But it's happening. Keep your home as close as you can to its original condition, and one day it will pay you back.

q You can contact Jeff Howell at the Independent on Sunday or by e-mail: Jeff@doctoronthehouse.demon.co.uk

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