Cherish historic buildings: they can’t go in museums

An old building in Redhill has been repurposed for modern use

Our heritage has been in the news recently in various ways. One of the Black Lives Matter protests resulted in the removal of statues celebrating people of the past whose money was made from slavery. The National Trust, and other organisations, have started reopening their historic homes and gardens.

These points are at different ends of the spectrum, but linked. History brings us lessons of evil as well as celebrations of good. It is important to learn about them, either way. Recent events have highlighted that more needs to be written in our school history books about certain characters and their flaws.

Our curriculums are packed with histories of World Wars One and Two. Many people will have learned of Henry VIII, Martin Luther King, or Ghandi. Did you learn of Martin Luther too? As a protestant revolutionary, he’s central to Henry VIII’s story.

Do the depths of those stories evade us or resonate? Few people in history were cleaner than clean, if we choose to stop and study them. Few modern heroes are, either. Many have some vice by modern standards.

Was Henry VIII a good man or a bad one? Is he in the history books to celebrate him or to question him? He wanted wars, to conquer other people’s kingdoms. He did much in the name of wanting a son: he trampled on convention; some of his wives were divorced or executed; his enemies were slain because of their strong religious beliefs which were in his way.

Yet, we, the public celebrate his grandeur and largesses by visiting his properties such as Hampton Court Palace. It’s a private place. You have to pay to go. It is a museum, a homage to the past, glorious and gory. Many visitors marvel at the architecture, the pictures and the art – and the maze outside.

Recently, we have listened to the arguments that statues of historic figures (starting with those who carried out bad acts) should be in museums only, not out on our streets. Maybe in the calmness of indoors, we can learn about them fully, their foibles and all. And maybe museums are the place for statues of footballers, too, instead of outside stadiums. Best do it before someone discovers and pronounces an abhorrent aspect of their past. “Wasn’t he a drunk?” “Didn’t he steal something once?”

But what of historic buildings? We can’t move them, brick by brick, indoors to a museum. But don’t we value their history? Surely, if the architecture is important – of its age and a reflection of our culture – a strong consideration must be to look after them? To preserve this sense of the past.

There are various mechanisms to set that in stone – a Listed Building status, perhaps. Or a blue plaque on a wall depicting that someone famous and important once lived there. A poet. An artist. A pop star. Who each had their flaws, perhaps, depending on our conceptions and beliefs.

Or is it the structure and design that is more important than whoever went inside? Anyone living in a conservation area will know how hard it is to gain revisions to the layout, or to extend.

London, one could argue, is never finished. There is always building works going on. The City is a hotch potch of buildings, new and old. Contrast the Bank of England or St Paul’s with the Gerkin, the London Eye or the Shard. We can wonder at many aspects. Who lived there? What was the original use? Would local planning authorities in the shires allow these new buildings? Or would they reject them because they were not “in keeping” with their surroundings? Modern architecture of this type seems to be a competition of modern art between designers. They are – or will be judged – of their age.

But does a town treasure its heritage? Do we just chuck out the history when we want something new? Or do we convert for a more modern use? Several old buildings in Redhill town centre – and in Reigate – have been saved in the past. Modern buildings are built to “fit in” aesthetically, such as St Mary’s Church’s modern conference centre, opposite the related church. St John’s Church’s new building had to be made of the same type – or look – of stone as the church itself. It won an award from the Reigate Society for fitting in so well.

Old architecture is important, because it is “of its age”. It reminds us of our past, our heritage – good or bad. Perhaps we went to school there – that prompts memories good or bad. This treasure chest of ancestry begs to be cherished, even if it has to be converted for our modern needs. Just because it is boarded up doesn’t make it beyond salvation, it might be that it has just been made secure in lockdown.

The Territorial Army base in Chart Lane, Reigate.

There are other “period” buildings around that are boarded up. Does that mean they are expendable? Is it OK to lose their history? Or should we make every attempt to reuse them if we can?