Celebrated Modernist home closed to visitors by the National Trust due to lack of interest

High Cross House in Dartington, Devon, failed to attract enough visitors to make it financially sustainable

Nick Clark
Monday 30 December 2013 21:25
High Cross House in Dartington, Devon played host to Bertrand Russell, Lucian Freud and many others
High Cross House in Dartington, Devon played host to Bertrand Russell, Lucian Freud and many others

Experts have expressed dismay at the closure of one of Britain’s most celebrated Modernist residences to visitors after low numbers prompted the National Trust to pull out of managing it.

The National Trust described High Cross House in Dartington, Devon, as a “Modernist gem”. Yet it failed to attract enough visitors to make it financially sustainable and closed its doors to the public on Sunday.

Maggie Giraud, the founding curator of High Cross House, said: “It’s terribly sad,” adding that while architects would be fascinated by the building, “the general public may not have been. It needed something inside to keep people coming back.”

Ms Giraud, who oversaw the building’s restoration and its establishment as a public venue in 1995, added: “It needs imagination, investment and drive. It could be turned into an archival centre for study of Modernist architecture. The house needs to be given a purpose.”

The Trust agreed to manage the property in March 2012 on a 10-year lease, calling it “among the top five Modernist houses” in the UK.

While the site was marketed to 4 million National Trust members, visitor figures stayed “below target”, which meant it could not make enough money to keep going. This prompted the Trust to activate a break clause.

John Allan of Avanti Architects said the news of High Cross House’s closure was “disappointing”, especially since the Trust had enjoyed “considerable success” in running other modern buildings, such as Erno Goldfinger’s house in Hampstead, north London, and Patrick Gwynne’s house The Homewood in Surrey.

The Modernist expert said the promotion of 20th century architectural heritage “is still beset by resistance and incomprehension, and it is therefore particularly important that people can visit the very few iconic modern houses in the UK that are available”.

“It’s very sad that High Cross House looks set to become a forgotten ghost of British Modernist architecture,” The Independent’s architecture critic Jay Merrick added. “High Cross House is an architectural gem, but just not quite iconic enough to generate a steady flow of worshippers.”

Gary Calland, general manager for the National Trust English Riviera properties, said the organisation was “disappointed” but “as a charity we must ensure that we do all we can to protect the many properties we already own and care for”.

He said that the 21,000 people who visited High Cross House in 2012 was “something we should be proud of”, but that the property needed 32,000 to break even.

Vaughan Lindsay, chief executive of The Dartington Hall Trust, the owners of Hill Cross House, said: “We will now be looking at alternative ways we can share this remarkable Modernist building.”

The property was built in 1932, funded by patrons Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst as a “machine for living in”. William Curry, headmaster of the progressive Dartington Hall School, commissioned Swiss-American architect William Lescaze and described the resulting building as evoking “serenity, clarity and a kind of openness”.

It was developed by the Elmhirsts as an “artist’s utopia” hosting Bertrand Russell, Henry Moore, Benjamin Britten, Lucian Freud and Barbara Hepworth. The home fell into neglect from 1987 and was used as a student hostel. It was restored in 1995 by architect John Winter and became the first British Modernist house to open to the public.

Damaged goods: Houses at risk

Clarke Hall, Wakefield

In 2012, Wakefield’s Clarke Hall living museum was forced to close when local authorities struggled to find a new buyer despite proposals of a council subsidy. The 17th century, grade-II listed building opened to the public in 1975.

St Giles’ House, Shaftesbury

Once deemed a trendsetter in landscape design, the grounds surrounding St Giles’ House are in dire straits and have been put on English Heritage’s At Risk register due to an absentee owner.

Courtfield House, Trowbridge

Built in 1754, the grade-II* listed clothier’s house was left abandoned in 2011 when the school it was housing moved relocated, and it is now considered At Risk.

The Orangery at Blithfield Hall, Staffordshire

Built as an extension to Blithfield Hall in the late 1700s by Samuel Wyatt it was severely damaged during the Second World War, and negligence has resulted in damage to the stonework and rusting of the interior metalwork.

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