Open-plan living became popular at the turn of the twenty-first century. The main feature of this concept is the idea of having a combined kitchen/dining/living room space. Another aspect of this trend is the idea of ‘bringing the outdoors in’, by installing large glass windows overlooking the rear of the house. These are designed to a) let in lots of light and b) provide a view. The idea is that, instead of going outside to the garden, you can look out at it from the comfort of your home.
In the pre- and post-World War Two era, there was more formality. People on my granny’s road addressed each other by their surname, as in “Good morning, Mr. Kennedy” and “Good evening Mrs. Quinn”. There was also more privacy. This was reflected in the architecture of the time. Some of my most nostalgic memories are of visiting my mother’s childhood home. The peaceful atmosphere of this late 1920s’ dwelling demonstrated the value of the closed floor plan. This was the traditional interior design ethos, which was that every room had a role.
The function of the sitting room was to provide a place for people to entertain their guests. It also gave them the privacy to pursue their hobbies. In my grandparents’ house, the evidence of this was a piano, complete with sheet music, left behind when my mother moved away. As it was the front room, the sitting room was also a place to display objects that defined the identity of the household. These keepsakes included framed family photographs, holiday souvenirs and ornaments.
Off the hallway was a dining room/living room where my grandparents spent most of their time. In that sense, it was a modern multifunctional space. On one side of the room, there was a tiled fireplace. On the other side, there was a big wooden sideboard, where my grandmother saved fifty pence coins in a glass jar and sometimes allowed me to take one. In the middle of the floor was a dark wood table that dominated the room. On the table sat a brown glazed teapot and a solid glass sugar bowl. These articles were essential components of the tea ceremony. At this table, I sampled unusual foods, such as apricot jam and smoked maple bacon rashers. These rare treats evoke special memories that I associate with childhood.
At the end of the hall was the kitchen, which was the engine room of the house and the woman’s workplace. Here she was Queen of her own domestic domain and could concentrate on her chores. The most interesting items in the kitchen were the cream-coloured tea, coffee and sugar canisters lined on a shelf, alongside an oriental tea caddy and a tin of Bird’s Custard Powder. The distinctive design of these vintage containers had an aesthetic appeal that attracted my attention. Other curious commodities to be found in the kitchen were prunes and grapefruit, two fruits that have fallen out of fashion nowadays.
On entering the hall, the first thing a visitor saw was a black and white lithograph portrait hanging in a thick black oval frame. At the bottom of the stairs was a black Bakelite telephone, with a numbered rotary dial that my little brother occasionally dialled randomly until someone answered the call. At the top of the stairs was a large blue latticework lantern, with a red light burning inside it. To the left was the bathroom, equipped with a claw-foot bath, a sink and an old-style high tank porcelain toilet with a pull handle and chain.
There were three bedrooms on the landing. The boys’ bedroom faced the back garden and was furnished with a small bookcase at the head of two single beds. As far as I was concerned, the most intriguing item in the room was a copy of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. This was the play that inspired the musical My Fair Lady.
My grandparents’ room had a view of the street and overlooked an Arts and Crafts-style house with a decorative half-timbered gable, two-storey bay, and a tall monkey puzzle tree in the front garden. Behind the door of this room, there was a double bed with a black cast iron fireplace at the foot of it. On the right was a press, where my brother found some 1930s’ editions of Popular Mechanics magazine, featuring articles with inspiring titles, such as ‘How to build your own Plane’.
The smallest bedroom was empty, except for a stripped bed. This box room overlooked a protruding porch and supporting wooden pilaster at the corner of it. Underneath the overhanging porch was the dark red front door, with its decorative glass panelling and brass furniture that my mother used to polish with Brasso. The upper external walls of the house were pebbledashed and the lower walls were red brick.
At the front of the house was a little patch of lawn dotted with daisies and intersected by a concrete path at the side of the garden. This plot of grass was surrounded by a low black metal fence with inset gate. The name of the house, St. Andrew’s, was carved on a pale, weatherworn panel of wood on the gate.
At the back of the house was a small concrete yard. Beyond the yard was a long path that ran alongside the garden, which was mostly the man’s domain. This is where the householder practiced self-sufficiency by growing fruit and vegetables, something he had probably been encouraged to do during the Second World War. When he had grown the produce, he gave them to the woman of the house, who prepared them, cooked them or preserved them by making jam. Of all the vegetables in the garden, my favourite was the old-fashioned rhubarb, with its reddish-green stalks and tart acidic taste.
One of my favourite outdoor memories is of admiring the apple tree at close quarters. Occasionally, I also occupied myself by pottering around my grandfather’s cool dark shed, examining various mysterious metal implements and gardening tools. Among the abandoned possessions that were stored in the shed were some wood-framed deckchairs, draped with striped coloured fabric. Sometimes, on a Sunday afternoon in summer, we sat on deckchairs in the yard, listening to the cheers coming from Croke Park football stadium three kilometres away.
Growing up, these glimpses into domestic life illustrated the need to preserve our suburban architecture and respect the ethos of the architects that came before us. It is important to remember the many period homes that are needlessly gutted each year by people who fail to recognise and appreciate the value of preserving these houses. According to the bricksandbrass.co.uk website, these buildings can be cheaper to maintain, as the rooms are easier to heat and the materials used to build them are of a higher quality. This makes them ideally suited to today’s environmentally-friendly era.
(c) Geraldine Hoxey
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