By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

Your browser seems to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser.

Close

Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Close

Conservation piece

Hampshire County Council had to keep a clear vision when painstakingly restoring a local museum

The name Gilbert White's House and the Oates Museum points to the somewhat strange bedfellows that have made this museum and its phased works a viable project. For the Oates exhibition, focused on Captain Oates of 'Scott of the Antarctic' fame and Frank Oates, a Victorian explorer of Africa, display space was what was needed. But while the Oates family has local roots, the exhibition of these pioneers could have been housed anywhere, in a building ancient or modern. By contrast, Gilbert White (1720-93), though nationally famed in his day as a naturalist, was essentially a person of this place, of the village of Selborne between Alton and Petersfield, and of this house. The building, also known as The Wakes, was his family home for many years until his death. And what largely brought him to prominence was his one book, recording prolonged observation of natural history, mostly based on Selborne 1.Though White was an educated man, becoming a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, his lifelong obsession was his home ground.

And while the museum does have the original book manuscript and some other artefacts, the essence of the White 'exhibition' is this house and its traces of how he lived here and shaped its garden. Fortunately, when additions were made to the house over the years, the existing parts were not modernised at the same time. The layers have built up. The house is now listed Grade I, with outbuildings listed Grade II and the gardens Grade II*.

Broadly, today's use of the house as a museum entails restoration of the parts dating from White's time, while later additions have been put to other uses: as the Oates galleries (currently with temporary displays), as staff accommodation, a shop and tea rooms. In practice, the consistency in use of traditional materials and the sympathy of later additions mean that this building feels like one rather than two, if rambling and layered by time. However, for the visitor the logic of combining White and Oates exhibitions is not presented in a self-explanatory way and may never be fully resolved.

The cohabiting of White and Oates goes back to 1954, when the house came on to the market. A first public appeal to make it a Gilbert White museum failed to raise enough money. Then Robert Washington Oates offered to purchase the house on condition that there was also an Oates museum within the building. So the museum went ahead on that basis. A charitable trust had been formed and, acting as client, it approached Hampshire Architecture and Design Services (HADS) for help with a Lottery bid and with managing the project.

(HADS is part of the in-house property services department at Hampshire County Council. The department has some 500 staff and undertakes commissions too for other public and private non-profit-making clients. It is currently looking for more historic-buildings architects. ) Buildings rarely stand still and this one has not. It is about twice the size it was when White lived here. Early in its history the building was a timber-framed hall house, dated to 1610 by dendrochronology, probably of three bays. By White's time an entrance lobby on the north (street) side led into the Little Parlour and a few rooms beyond. (Visitors now enter and leave via the shop. ) The Little Parlour also had a modest stair up to the small upper floor containing White's bedroom.

White added the Great Parlour to the west of the house, completed in 1777. Bell's library was added further west again, in about 1850, by a Professor Bell who then owned the house. Even further west, a twostorey addition was built incorporating a billiard room, now the shop. Oddly, a connecting corridor from this was built along the front of the house, linking it to the original entrance lobby. That was about 1910.

Meanwhile, probably in the 1890s, a second storey had been added to the Great Parlour and to Bell's Library; these two rooms and the room above the shop are the Oates galleries, minus some partitioning from the 1940s/'50s.

A new, larger staircase was also built in Victorian times. At the east end of the building, staff accommodation (and a library) were built about 1910, which may have overbuilt the site of White's kitchen, or the White kitchen may have been where it is now on show, though this was known to be White's dining room for a substantial part of his life.

The Tea Parlour (museum cafe) was a dining room added by White's brother shortly after White's death.

Visitors travel in a loop from the shop/entrance along the 1910 corridor, through the original entrance lobby into the Little Parlour and then to ground-floor rooms; then up the Victorian stair to White's bedroom, west up half a floor on the original staircase then through the Oates galleries and finally descend into the shop again.

Today the project is at the end of its third of four work phases, following a Lottery grant of about £1.8 million in 1998. Phase one, starting in 1999, involved repairs to the fruit garden wall and ha-ha at the end of the rear lawn. These walls were propped, taken down brick by brick as necessary, existing foundations grouted and walls rebuilt. In 2001 phase two began, creating new premises for the field study centre, located in the extensive garden. The study centre is mainly used by schools. A 16th-century timber barn, donated in 1992, was moved to the site and converted into the centre by HADS.

New additions in a compatible rural-outbuilding architecture accommodate WCs and offices.

Phase three, entailing major works to the house, is now complete. Phase four is current restoration of the gardens, working from White's writings, being carried out by the museum and its volunteers. The Lottery-funded works are due for completion this year.

For phase three the architect wanted to close the museum for the duration of the works; the museum did not. The compromise was an eventual closure of eight weeks for interior work, followed by eight months when the museum remained open during roof repairs. These roof works were carried out under a freestanding sheeted scaffold roof.

A measured and drawn survey by the architect at inception stage informed them both about the condition of fabric and services and the house's development. By far the worst in condition and most extensive in work has been repair of the 19 interlocking pitched roofs, 90 per cent of which required attention. There was rot and insect attack to structural timbers and battens, plus nail sickness - tiles were a mix of peg and nibbed, of different periods - and a lot of damaging leaks. The roof was stripped and tiles stacked roof by roof, to be returned to their original locations where possible. However, there was 30-40 per cent replacement. In some cases, existing tiles from hidden roof slopes have been used to tile visible slopes, maintaining patina. A lot of ridge and bonnet tiles, fixed with cement mortar, were lost in stripping the roofs; replacements were specially made where suitable new replacements could not be found.

The architect walked and crawled the roofspaces, recording the size, location and condition of every timber that could be seen.

The extensive decay was addressed by ventilation of the roofs, including the introduction of eaves sprockets and ridge vents, rather than by chemical timber treatment.

The roof now also has insulation and sarking.Where timbers were weakened by decay or otherwise under-strength, additional timbers have been fixed alongside with the original ones left in place.

The existing, corroded weathervane was carefully removed and repaired by a local blacksmith. Parts have also been gilded. The shaft of the weathervane penetrated the roof about 3.5m, through the centre of the principal roof truss.

A lightning protection system has been installed serving the 19 roofs. To minimise its visual impact, strike rods have been fitted between chimneypots and downtapes hidden beneath bonnet tiles and behind rainwater pipes.

English Heritage was Lottery monitor for the project, and so went through the scheme with the local conservation officer. He wanted to agree action to every structural timber individually but a compromise was reached where, after the first part of the roof had been stripped and repairs agreed, only periodic inspections would be made - providing, that is, that the architect made a full record of the as-built roof structure. A three-dimensional computer model is being built of the refurbished roof.

Just as for the roof, so too for the M&E services - there has been careful recording of the existing and the new, creating precise as-built drawings rather than the usual schematic services layouts.Where services were no longer needed they were removed, if accessible. Otherwise they were capped off and left in place for future reference. Service routes have followed existing openings where possible, even if that meant taking circuitous routes around rooms. Amazingly, every new hole was agreed on site between the architect and the subcontractor as the work was carried out.

In the Oates galleries, there are ceiling fan convectors and a more contemporary lighting treatment, though if artefacts need very special environmental conditions these will be provided in conditioned display cabinets.

In the White (and Bell) rooms, the approach has been more responsive to the original fabric. For example, in Bell's library there is a convector in the door threshold to the garden and one in a fireplace; in White's Little Parlour the convector is under-stair with the grille in one of the risers. Radiators are painted in the same colour as walls so that they recede visually.

Years of redundant surface wiring have been removed. Socket outlets are generally in the skirtings, in existing positions, now taking the form of unobtrusive colourmatched flat plates. The shop's floor has a wiring trench and the conference room a shallow timber raised floor to incorporate electrical floor boxes.

All this control of services was greatly facilitated by the main contractor Richardsons (Nyewood), which HADS had worked with before, having its own in-house services personnel and involving them in the job at an early stage.

Lighting has been kept to the original fittings or discreet modern ones used, which have been accepted for emergency lighting.

Around the Victorian stair the doors are now half-hour and one-hour fire doors, either new or upgraded with intumescent paper to the panels. The two fire doors to the stairs between White's bedroom and the Oates galleries are on magnetic hold-backs; in a discreet touch, the label 'Automatic Fire Door Keep Clear' is displayed on a narrow plate on the leading edge of these doors, instead of on a large label.

All spaces have been redecorated, carried out largely by the museum staff and volunteers under the direction of the architect. In the White rooms the decoration draws where possible on his writings. The galleries are more neutral. Plaster repairs have been in lime-based plaster. Internal window shutters are all now working. The kitchen is blue, following the Georgian belief that this colour deters flies.

Floors are oak-boarded in the White rooms, carpeted in the galleries and staff areas. In the Great Parlour the curtain closes across the bay opening, marking the fact that the bay window was added after White's time.

Accessibility is inevitably problematical to improve. There is a ramp to the entrance/shop, and the corridor to the Little Parlour is now ramped too. The kitchen floor is three steps down, so a glassbalustraded platform has been created level with the corridor outside, set immediately inside the kitchen, so that everyone can at least get inside the room to look. There is no lift to the first floor, though information technology has been installed so that it will be possible to provide intellectual access to the first floor via computer terminals.

Other items include works to drainage, scarfing in replacement timber to window frames, use of horticultural glass in window repairs to maintain the slightly uneven appearance and extensive repairs to various periods of brickwork and malmstone. This freestone is no longer quarried but the trust has been collecting it for 10 years and more became available following a local demolition.

Phase three has been completed on time and is slightly under budget, mainly due to the unforeseen works to the roof being less than first expected because so much detailed survey work was undertaken initially. An enormous amount of effort has been put into this project, with the paradoxical accolade that little improvement is immediately visible. Look more closely, though, and you see a consistency of approach and those many signs of touching the building with care.

Footnotes 1.White published The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne in 1789.The antiquities were never as popular as the natural history and are sometimes left out, as in The Natural History of Selborne, first published by Penguin in 1977.Thames & Hudson this year published The Illustrated Natural History of Selborne, adding a large range of colour plates by White's contemporaries.

COST SUMMARY - PHASE THREE Cost (£) Percentage of total Roof and chimneys 107,620 11.44 External joinery 3,885 0.41 External walls 9,305 0.99 Building superstructure 105,865 11.26 Mechanical services 110,000 11.69 Electrical services 135,900 14.45 Builder's work in connection 49,250 5.24 Street frontage 8,015 0.85 New toilet facilities 31,980 3.40 Drainage 12,705 1.35 Preliminaries 147,095 Scaffolding 84,980 9.03 Contingency 93,00 9.89 Investigative surveys 11,000 1.17 Decoration and sundry items 30,000 3.19 TOTAL 940,600 COST SUMMARY - ALL PHASES Cost (£) Percentage of total Phase three costs 940,600 57.7 Repairs to fruit wall and ha-ha 60,000 3.7 Repairs to boundary wall 10,000 0.6 Hard landscaping 15,000 0.9 Garden restoration 105,000 6.4 Study centre 500,00 30.7 TOTAL 1,630,600 CREDITS PROJECT DURATION 1998-2004 PHASE THREE COST £940,600 FORM OF CONTRACT JCT 98 with quantities CLIENT The Trustees of Gilbert White's House and the Oates Museum ARCHITECT Architect and Design Services, Hampshire County Council: Giles Pritchard (project architect), Peter Davis (head of historic buildings) STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Andrew Waring Associates QUANTITY SURVEYOR Wheeler Group SERVICES ENGINEER RHB Partnership PLANNING SUPERVISOR Property, Business and Regulatory Services, Hampshire County Council MAIN CONTRACTOR Richardsons (Nyewood) SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS Services Richardsons (Nyewood); timber decay specialist Hutton & Rostron Environmental Investigations; blacksmith Peter Clutterbuck;

fire, intruder alarm system Christie Intruder Alarms; scaffolding Palmers; joinery SBS Joinery; roof tile specialist, chimney pots Redbank; fire upgrading products Advanced Fire Prevention (Products); paint Farrow & Ball; ironmongery Higrade Hardware;

gallery lighting Precision Lighting; socket faceplates Forbes and Lomax; lightning protection system AR Rood; radiators Hudevad WEBLINKS The Trustees of Gilbert White's House and the Oates Museum www. hants. gov. uk/discover/places/wakes. html Hampshire County Council www. hants. gov. uk Wheeler Group www. wheelergroup. com RHB Partnership www. rhbpartnership. co. uk

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.

The searchable digital buildings archive with drawings from more than 1,500 projects

AJ newsletters