Jonathan Glancey: Save Britian's Heritage Celebrates 30 Years Of Historic Building Preservation





Forlorn Palladian country houses. Faded mechanics' institutes. Unitarian churches and Methodist chapels long abandoned by the non-conforming industrial faithful in the once sooty suburbs of northern towns . . . these are just the sort of abandoned buildings that Save Britain's Heritage was set up to rescue 30 years ago, during what had been designated European Architectural Heritage Year.

Britain's contribution to that event was, in the first three months of 1975 alone, 334 applications to demolish listed buildings. The rate at which these were disappearing was astonishing. It was as if the nation, for all its contemporary dismissal of modern architecture, was in a hurry to rid itself of at least two centuries of distinguished buildings as it ploughed with spectacular incompetence through the economic mire of the "decade that design forgot".

The heroes of the mid-1970s, in the world of architectural conservation, were Marcus Binney, then editor of Country Life, and first and future president of Save, and John Harris, curator of the Royal Institute of British Architects' Drawing Collection. The conservation group they founded with historians, authors, curators, journalists and architects sprang from an exhibition curated for Roy Strong by Binney and Harris at the V&A in 1974. This was The Destruction of the Country House, which drew an unexpectedly large and sympathetic audience. Well before Charles Sturridge's lavish TV series Brideshead Revisited, which brought country house style back into favour in the economically buoyant 1980s, the V&A exhibition made people take notice of the wilful architectural blitz raging the length of Britain.

Binney and Harris showed haunting pictures of 1,116 country houses demolished over the past century, a figure later revised to more than 1,600. This might have been cause for celebration to many of the last generation of working-class Labour politicians and old school trade unionists for whom country houses were anathema, yet what the founders of Save were showing at the V&A was only the tip of an iceberg of much-liked, potentially re-usable and even glorious British architecture. This included handsome Regency working-class housing and magnificent railway stations designed for everyone, such as Glasgow St Enoch's, demolished in that destructive European Architectural Heritage Year 30 years ago.

Thanks to Save's know-how, the press swung behind the conservation movement, as did public opinion. Today, with so many fine buildings saved and thriving with new uses, you might think Save would rest on its laurels. You would be wrong.

In the back of a lively new book, Save Britain's Heritage 1975-2005: Thirty Years of Campaigning, are pictures of impressive buildings under threat. These include: the Collier Street Baths, Salford, one of the earliest surviving municipal bathhouses in Britain; Gwrych Castle, north Wales, an immense and sadly roofless folly designed by the entertainingly named Lloyd Hesketh Bamford-Hesketh for himself from 1819; and Kinmel Hall, Derbyshire, designed for the copper-rich Hughes family by WE Nesfield in the 1870s - an evangelical conference centre until it was abandoned after a fire, this country house is now empty.

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