Noble salvage

“Safe as houses”, goes the phrase – and what could be more reassuringly permanent than our homes, rooted as they are to the ground? But buildings rarely stand still, and not only because they cling to a planet as it spins endlessly around the sun.

Take the camera di letto of the Palazzo Sagredo in Venice, the Second Oak Room of Sutton Scarsdale in Derbyshire or the Gold Room of the Hôtel du Temple in Paris. Actually, it’s too late to take them anywhere, because they’ve long gone to America. And they’re but a few of the migrating interiors that have ended up in second homes, across oceans and continents.

The phenomenon was revealed to me in 1996, as a new curator of London’s Kew Palace, wandering through the former merchant’s house on the edge of Kew Gardens that was adopted by the Hanoverian monarchy. The interiors were stripped back to show how the house had been reconfigured to prepare for the king’s convalescence from porphyria in 1804. The early 19th-century princesses had been given bedrooms with a 16th-century fireplace, 17th-­century panelling and 18th-century doors, all reused. I measured the panels to try to gauge where in the house they originated from, then noticed a scrawl on one: “Lot 5/-”. They’d been bought as a job lot for five shillings.

If royalty depended on the second-hand trade to recycle outmoded interiors into something fit for a princess, where does that leave the rest of us?

Before statutory protection in many countries made it illegal to strip historic homes of their fittings, the grander the house, the more mobile its interiors tended to be. Fine materials, especially sculptural fireplaces, were always prized for resale. The salvage of interiors was often straightforward because panelling or “wainscoting” and its carved accoutrements such as pilasters can (with some sawing, levering and swearing) be taken off. Though they would never fit a space as well again, they could usually be adjusted for new dimensions, while doors could be trimmed and re-hung.

Look closely and you’ll see that most reclaimed interiors don’t quite fit their new homes. Even in the age of classical design, when we might expect everything to conform to strict proportions, we find temples to salvage like the Marble Saloon at Stowe House, Buckinghamshire. The room was built from 1772 as one of the finer neoclassical halls of Europe, in the guise of the Pantheon. Its title reflects the marble slabs of its floor, having been hauled 100 miles from Dorset. The late 17th-century panelling of its chapel was salvaged from another Stowe, in Cornwall, and installed in 1747 by architect William Kent. Kent was admired for his inventive design: here, he just had to wedge it all together artfully. Many famous architects may well have had to do the same.

Beyond the simple thrift of reusing surplus wall furniture, the finest whole interiors have long been valued. And museum boards and their advisory panels have been at the forefront of salvaging the best set-pieces.

Yin Yu Tang at Peabody Essex Museum

In his book Moving Rooms John Harris describes how the salvage trade served a desire to lend a quick-fix aura of antiquity to grand houses. This personal identification with the past overlapped with a burgeoning trend for nostalgic nationalism. In 1876, a coincident display of period rooms in Philadelphia, Boston and Amsterdam inspired an international taste for a form of immersive display that was easily accommodated in vast new decorative arts museums such as the Victoria & Albert. In 1909, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art made it a policy to collect period interiors.

From the 1920s, the interiors salvage trade really took off, no doubt aided by the spoils of the first world war, while redevelopment was contributing new interiors and even whole façades.

The American enthusiasm for reclaimed interiors reached epic proportions. For Hearst Castle (not a castle but a house, even if in the guise of a cathedral) at San Simeon in California, William Randolph Hearst’s architect Julia Morgan imported Italian palazzo ceilings to frame French Renaissance fireplaces with medieval Spanish choir stalls. The Refectory is a cultural mausoleum for ketchup bottles that may prove too saucy for some. Upon sharing my ethical indigestion, my American wife swiftly reminded me of Britain’s adoption of the Elgin – sorry, Parthenon – Marbles. I had to salvage that situation myself.

Most recycled interiors are more mongrel than thoroughbred. Given that plaster ceilings are difficult to lever off without shattering, many period rooms have plain ceilings with downlighting so that we experience three, or at best four, choice walls. The Metropolitan Museum of Art houses a classic example, the Damascus Room: a reception hall of three woods, mother-of-pearl, marble and gesso that is suspiciously fresh for its 305 years. The thing is, nobody knows which building it came from, or how much was altered since its removal and sale in the 1930s. But it clearly underwent a Damascene conversion.

You can’t help but ask if it’s right to pull buildings apart. On the face of it, interiors belong in the place they were intended for. But even die-hard preservationists might concede that there are circumstances in which period rooms should be rescued. Even before the recent conflict in Syria, the centre of Damascus – one of the oldest cities in the world – had been placed on World Monuments Fund’s Watch list of endangered sites. From 1995 to 2005, more than 20,000 inhabitants left the historic centre for modern housing, encouraging the local government to bulldoze old buildings. Two years ago, it remained in decay and without adequate protection. In vulnerable areas like this, can we afford to wait before salvaging rare domestic spaces?

Hearst Castle

Many museums think we can’t wait. And some hold the conviction that single interiors are inadequate and that it’s a whole house or nothing. The Frontier Culture Museum in Virginia has a collection of imported houses typical of the immigrant populations whose domestic habits contributed to American life. Exhibits are from Westphalia, Northern Ireland and Herefordshire, all restored to function as they once did. The museum is also building a replica west African village to account for an estimated 250,000 African immigrants. The experience of African interiors may not otherwise be available to millions of Americans. And to hear the banjo – an African instrument – resonate in a 19th-century American farmhouse is to understand country music for the first time.

Perhaps the most impressive of all transplanted buildings is a Chinese house at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts. Yin Yu Tang (meaning “shelter/shade-plenty-hall”) is an 18th-century merchant’s house from Huang Cun, 250 miles south-west of Shanghai. Its 16 bedrooms were home to eight generations of a family through prosperity, wars and Communist rule. Rebuilt in 2003, its exquisitely carved but worn lattice windows, agricultural implements, scattered clothes and stories of its inhabitants sweep visitors into a very accessible reality of daily life in China.

The curator throughout the project was Nancy Berliner, who was amazed by its reach: “In addition to offering Americans unfamiliar with Chinese culture an opportunity to come face-to-face with Chinese lives, the house has also become a draw for Chinese Americans, who bring their American-born children here to give them a taste of their heritage.” The project has even had an impact in China, she adds: “The American interest in and respect for the house has inspired efforts to preserve vernacular architecture in the Huizhou district, where Yin Yu Tang originated, and around many other areas of the country.”

What will we leave behind of our contemporary homes? Today interiors tend to stay put – plasterboard nailed into place, mouldings gummed and screwed. When they are outmoded, they’re dismantled and dumped, doors bought off-the-peg ending up on the scrapheap. Is there a lesson here? Should we be paying more for crafted modular interiors in quality materials that will be valued and have future lives? Should we embrace salvage to mitigate waste? Or would that encourage destruction? There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. We must look inside ourselves for the answers.

Dr Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of World Monuments Fund Britain

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