Survival of the fittest

Bay windows, Art Deco detailing and solid craftsmanship: they knew how to make houses in the Twenties and Thirties. Penny Jackson scouts around for family homes with style
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The Independent Online

Houses built during the Twenties and Thirties have enjoyed mixed fortunes, falling in and out of fashion in the past 80-odd years. But this period also saw the beginning of more practical middle-class houses: homes that could be run without staff and with the benefit of electricity.

The best were well-designed, comfortable and liveable houses with many of the features we look for today: large, interconnecting rooms, big windows, terraces and solid craftsmanship. Others were more modest, flimsy constructions but often sitting in large plots of land that was cheap at the time. "Many Twenties and Thirties houses have been murdered for their plot value, particularly in places like St George's Hill, Surrey," says Dawn Carritt, director of estates and country house department at Jackson-Stops & Staff. "Good houses as well as poor ones are likely to have been lost."

Those that have survived are once again in vogue. Sara Mair's home, High Wood, near Wrotham, Kent, is particularly fashionable, as it is a rare and remarkable example of an early timber-frame kit house. "It was not really regarded as a proper house when it was built," explains Mair, who has lived there with her family for 18 years. Their affection turned to admiration when, a year after they moved in, a hurricane hit the South-east, leaving chaos in its wake. "Only one roof tile was dislodged and we are on a hill," she says.

She hadn't needed this baptism of fire to be persuaded that this was a special house. She had discovered it after a fruitless househunting session, on her way to the airport to fly back to her then home in Scotland. As soon as she walked in the door knew that "this was it" - just like its first owner who bought the house, lock stock and barrel, after seeing it exhibited at the 1937 Ideal Home Exhibition.

"We found the original plans in the drawer of an old dresser in the kitchen," says Mair. "Colt, the company that produced the house, was trying to introduce the concept of this kind of home to the public. People here were very wary of anything timber."

Colt, which still makes timber-framed houses of all sizes, had started off building chicken coops in 1919, but when they saw that these sheds were being used as second homes, began a new line of marketing. Some years later, Edwin Lutyens was to design a house for them.

Mair describes High Wood as having the feel of a ski chalet. "It is the warmest house, because everything is so well insulated. It is also extremely light and sunny as we have windows everywhere, 28 in all, including a balcony off the main bedroom. The house was built in the centre of the plot, so picks up all the sunlight."

From its position in a natural-looking garden of mixed borders and lawn leading to a bluebell wood, the views stretch for miles. The house came with the equivalent of today's show-home features: brass Art Deco window catches, toggle light switches and maids' bell pulls are still intact. The solid polished-oak floor on the ground floor is original. Now that the children have left home the Mairs feel it is time to downsize and pass the house on to another family. It is on the market with Jackson-Stops & Staff at a guide price of £990,000.

Ailsa Road, in Twickenham, is the site of another Thirties-style family house, on the market for the first time in 50 years. The substantial four-bedroom house needs some updating but has retained its "Deco" feel, with original features such as the solid-oak staircase and doors; also, the main bedroom has its own terrace overlooking the mature secluded garden. It is for sale through FPDSavills' Richmond office at £995,000.

A substantial Thirties home for sale in West Hill, Putney, neatly illustrates the point that the era's spacious rooms lend themselves well to a contemporary makeover. The owners have extensively refurbished the four/five-bedroom house with great flair and attention to detail. FPDSavills' Wandsworth office is the selling agent and gives a guide price of £965,000.

For anyone wanting a gem of an Art Deco house, they need to turn to the unlikely setting of Bath. Looking down on its Georgian neighbours, Kilowatt House - white, elegant and unmistakeably Art Deco - is a home that makes a statement. As its name suggests, it was one of the first properties in the city to have electricity. It was designed by a Miss Taylor, who became a local character with her own practice, Gerrard Taylor Hind.

The Grade II-listed house has just been restored with attention to every detail. The front doorstep is a slab of carefully chosen black marble, stressed to look like leather. A beautiful curved cantilevered staircase with the original chrome handrail runs up through a double-height curved and glazed atrium.

Space and light - the current mantra - were achieved flawlessly more than half a century ago. The 40ft drawing room with double doors has French windows at both ends, leading into the garden. The ceiling is curved with concealed lighting and distinctive Art Deco designs. It has 1.4 acres of garden which run back to an old quarry wall. Hamptons International are selling it for £2.5m., 020-7664 6646, 01233 740074, 020-8614 9100 (Richmond), 01225 3122444