Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Devonport Ensemble 1821-24

Since 1700 the shape of Devonport has been dictated by the requirements of the Royal Navy. Over a period of 250 years almost every inch of the 4 mile waterfront came under naval control. The town is gradually being reshaped as surplus pockets of land become available for development. The dockyard is screened from public view by towering block built walls topped with razor wire that shape the street plan. The dockyard of today is more a place of heavy engineering and nuclear technology than a haunt of Jolly Jack Tars. Decades of cost cutting and outsourcing have reduced the demand for civilian labour putting great stress on the local economy. When shiny new housing schemes on ex-MOD land are unveiled the reality is that few local residents will have the cash to relocate into the new developments. Regeneration schemes are bearing some fruit after decades of gestation and contrary to the spirit of the times, the earthmovers and housebuilders are hard at work. Public buildings have been given a long overdue makeover and some singularly depressing post-war blocks have been replaced with new-build low-rise housing of slightly more sensitive design. All of which brings us to Ker Street where what remains of the Devonport Ensemble can still be seen. 

The most eccentric presence is the Egyptian styled, Grade 1 listed Odd Fellows Hall located on a corner, diagonally opposite to the Classical bulk of the recently renovated Devonport Town Hall. The third survivor is the Doric column that commemorates the renaming of Devonport in 1824. The fourth building in the ensemble was the Mount Zion Calvinist Chapel, designed in the Hindoo style that stood next to the Odd Fellows Hall until demolition in 1902. Remarkably all the buildings in their variety of styles were the work of a single architect, Plymouth based John Foulston (1772-1841). Conceived and constructed as symbols of a renewed sense of civic identity in just a few years (1821-24), the grouping of disparate stylistic influences has been held up as an exemplar of late-Georgian eclecticism. 

The Odd Fellows Hall is the building that catches the eye with its startling colour and ornamentation. It began life in 1823 as the Civil and Military Library and after a variety of uses it became the premises of the Ker Street Social Club in 1968. In the last few years it has settled into a new and less oppressive townscape, courtesy of regeneration, and recovered some of its former dignity. However despite the cheerfully gaudy frontage and the abundance of lotus leaves, palm fronds and bamboo motifs the building is on the English Heritage At Risk Register as requiring extensive repairs to secure its future. Further west in Penzance is a building known as the Egyptian House that exhibits many of the same exotic design elements but despite the close affinity with the Devonport building there is no evidence that Foulston was the architect. The Egyptian House displays a higher standard of finish and greater elaboration but the architect’s identity remains unknown.

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