The following is a guest post.
The architecture of home is a funny thing. As we near the holiday season, (and I am choosing to ignore the fact that Christmas decorations began to appear in stores in the States in October…), the idea of home seemingly infiltrates everything. I certainly don’t want to argue with the axiom that “home is where the heart is,” but sadly, a home, both literally and figuratively, is out of reach of many people.
Providing housing for the poor or homeless is not a new idea – and at least in the 20th century, the end result is often not the sort of architecture that either lifts or inspires the spirit. Victorian England teemed with workhouses and almshouses, (more commonly known in the States as “poorhouses”) and the plight of the poor engineered many a plot in the novels of Charles Dickens.
Historically, almshouses were built to house the elderly or needy, and were maintained by a charitable organization. It is only fitting, then, that a museum of the home would be housed in an 18th century almshouse – combining two of my personal loves, design and history!
Located in Shoreditch, in an area historically known as the furniture and cabinet-making area of London, the Geffrye Museum provides a glimpse into the changing designs of the home in England over a period of 400 years. The series of period rooms show how “homes and gardens reflect changes in society, behaviour, style and taste.” The Geffrye is the only museum in the United Kingdom dedicated to the history of the domestic interiors of the urban middle class.
The plan of the almshouse is 14 buildings behind a shared (and symmetrical) façade. The two-story, brick, U-shaped row of buildings, set back from the street behind a calm oasis of green lawn and trees, is most often described by modern visitors as “elegant.”
This three-sided configuration around a square was a deliberate design choice, intended to “provide a sense of safety and security without isolating residents from the outside world.” Centrally placed within the group of buildings is the chapel (residents were required to attend), accented with a cupola and belltower, and detailed with stone quoins on the sides.
Each almshouse had its own entry, flanked by two windows to either side. Around 50 people typically lived in the Geffrye almshouses. The front door opened onto a central passage with a staircase, with a room on either side. Cupboards for storage were located behind the stairs, and a “wash-house and fuel-store” were located in the basement.
Overcrowding in this part of London in early 20th century influenced the relocations of the almshouses. Only the park-like space in front of the property, a rarity in Shoreditch, prevented the demolition of the historic buildings. The London County Council opened the museum in 1914.
One of the almshouses (#14) has been restored, and is open for tours (timed entry only) sporadically. If you visit, hopefully you can make one of those tours, but the museum rooms and rear gardens are fascinating and beautiful.
A special bonus for this time of year is the exhibit “Christmas Past,” which provides a look at Christmas traditions in England over the last 400 years. Ever wondered about the origins of kissing under the mistletoe? Or what families ate for their Christmas feast? The Christmas Past exhibit, a tradition at the museum for over 20 years, celebrates the different meanings of the holiday through history.
Almshouses still play a very important role in Britain – there are some 2,000 of them, most operated by charities. The first recorded almshouse was located in York, built by orders of King Athelstan in 900 AD. The Hospital of St. Cross and the Almshouses of Noble Poverty in Winchester is the oldest continuously operating almshouse in England.
The hospital (and the word did not have the same meaning it does today; hospitality was the root, and medieval hospitals provided food and shelter to people in need.) was founded between 1132 and 1136. While the church is Norman in style, the almshouses date from the 15th century.
Like Christmas, the meaning of home has shaped and changed over time. Almshouses may not be familiar to many in the United States, but historically they have fulfilled a pressing need – and have provided a dignified and safe home for the elderly.
The Geffrye Museum took an excellent collection of buildings – home for many people over the generations – and preserved not only the structures themselves but the fleeting and changing sense of home and its traditions over the years.
Janie-Rice is an intrepid architectural historian with a double first name. She enjoys dark chocolate, old dilapidated buildings, and darting around English country houses in all sorts of weather. She’s a proud native Kentuckian and a farmer’s daughter. Janie-Rice is currently plotting her next trip to England and looking for a patron to sponsor it (landed gentry preferred.) Visit her at www.fhandfag.blogspot.com.