Saturday 24 June 2017

Tulip Stairs

The first geometric, self-supporting spiral staircase in Britain is in the Queen's House, Greenwich. It is 'geometric' because each step supports the stair above: there is no central column. Andrea Palladio, father of the Palladian style of architecture, had described and praised such staircases, 'void in the middle'. 

Inigo Jones studied Palladio's work and followed his example in the Queen's House. Nicholas Stone, his mason, introduced a crucial innovation. Rather than relying only on the overlap between steps for support, he also introduced a rebate: a groove along the bottom of the riser, also known as an 'interlock'. 

Stamp Office staircase, Somerset House

The difference is neatly illustrated in the Stamp Office staircase at Somerset House. The lower level, with its short flights and narrow steps, did not need rebates: we can see that the steps simply rest on top of each other. The much fancier upper level, though, is rebated: you can see that each step is slotted into the one above, rather than simply sat on the one below. (As usual, you can click the picture to enlarge it.)

Stone's innovation allowed such staircases to be built more dramatically, yet remain structurally sound. Geometric staircases proliferated in the eighteenth century, falling out of fashion only with the Gothic revival in the nineteenth. 

 Why was Britain's original named the Tulip Stairs, though? It's apparently a reference to the stylised flowers in the balustrade - although these are thought to be fleurs-de-lys, not tulips at all. They were the family emblem of Queen Henrietta Marie, wife of Charles I, for whom the house was built. (In fact, when work began, it was for James I's wife Anne of Denmark - but she died during building; when work resumed, it was for Henrietta Marie.) 

After the Civil War, the Palace of Greenwich in front of the house was demolished, giving it a view across to the Thames. When a new Hospital for Seamen was established on the palace site, Queen Mary II famously insisted that the river view must remain. Thus Sir Christopher Wren designed two pairs of courts, creating the riverside vista we are now familiar with - and leaving the Queen's House view unimpaired. 

It is now part of the National Maritime Museum, housing its art collection. Visits are free, and worthwhile for the displays - but don't forget to look at (and climb) this fabulous staircase. 

St Paul's Cathedral: Geometric Staircase

London has another famous seventeenth-century example: the Geometric Staircase of St Paul's Cathedral. A three-hundred-year-old masterpiece, which has starred in Harry Potter, it can be seen on the cathedral's Triforium Tour

Wednesday 7 June 2017

Whitgift Almshouses, Croydon

Incongruously ancient amidst the trams and chain stores, Whitgift Almshouses are an intriguing feature of central Croydon. The annual Heritage Festival offers a rare opportunity to walk through the gates and explore these historical buildings which are also very much a living community. 

John Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was a major benefactor to Croydon, and his name can be found on all sorts of places. Some, like the shopping centre, were built long after his time.

However, he was very much involved in establishing the almshouses, and set admission criteria which still apply today: residents must be over 60, of modest circumstances, members of the Church of England, and come from the parishes of Lambeth or Croydon or the County of Kent. Those who meet the criteria and are admitted get one of fifteen flats in sheltered accommodation, as well as use of the chapel and garden. They also receive a weekly stipend: on Friday mornings, the senior resident rings the chapel bell and each resident is given 70p (65p for men). Once a quarter, the men receive a further stipend of £3 and the women £1. 

The foundation stone was laid on 22 March 1596, after Elizabeth I gave Whitgift permission to establish the Hospital of the Holy Trinity. He had his summer residence in Croydon, and sought to address its poverty and (through founding a school at the same time) promote education.

While the flats have been modernised, converted from thirty or so individual rooms, the historical fabric of the buildings has largely survived, especially externally. Whitgift was a regular visitor to his almshouses, and his rooms remain. Their features include a staircase with alcove for a guard (the Archbishop was not always popular, especially as he was highly intolerant of Puritanism). There is a story that one night, the servant on guard fell asleep: falling down the steep stairs, he broke his neck and died. 

It's worth risking your neck on the steps, as they lead to the Audience Chamber with its original oak panelling and fireplace.

Safely back on the ground floor, the residents' common room has stained glass from various periods, including one piece spelling out a financial contribution!

Visits end where they began, in the Quadrangle. Its inclusion in the Hospital design reflects Whitgift's Cambridge connections: he was Master of Trinity College. 

The clock, which has only one hand, is from 1608. It's a reminder of the centuries which have passed in this lovely, peaceful place.

If you'd like to visit the Almshouses, there are free guided tours on Saturday 24 June as part of the Croydon Heritage Festival - book here.