Dennis Severs House evokes the London past -- and you better pay attention

Dennis Severs House evokes the London past -- and you better pay attention
The house was meticulously decorated to transport select visitors back in time. (Alan Williams / Dennis Severs House)
At the narrow doorway on Folgate Street, a man urges you to please enter and go through the house in complete silence. Also, he warns, there will be no electricity.

And so begins a visit to the Dennis Severs House, one of London's most enchanting historical oddities. Built in 1724, the five-story house is a collection of objects laid out as if the family who lived there three centuries ago had just left . . . or were perhaps just in the next room. It would be wrong to call this a museum since the family, the Jervises, are entirely made up. Severs, who bought the house in 1979, considered it a work of art -- his work of art.

A visitor views by natural light or dim candle the portraits, the half-written shopping lists, the knife handle protruding from the day-old bread, the books, pamphlets and bric-a-brac and, on an upper floor, the unmade four-poster bed, its damask curtains held back by chords and tassels -- each detail designed to evoke 18th century life, including the (recorded) sounds of church bells, a carriage passing on the street and voices that seem to be emanating from elsewhere in the house. Most visceral of all is the smell of orange peels and cinnamon cloves used to offset the presence of urine in a chamber pot.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of the house is that its creator, Dennis Severs, was born and raised in Escondido, Calif. Severs bought the house in 1979 when he was 31. He lived in it and continued to work on it until he died 10 years ago at age 51.

Severs lived in the house, his own work of art, which he meticulously decorated in order to transport himself and select visitors back in time, when, he would have you believe, it was home to the Jervises, a family of bourgeois silk weavers who emigrated from France. Mind you, the Jervises didn't exist, except as a figment of Severs' imagination and as the raison d'être of his house.

On the top floor, the Jervis' fine oak furniture gives way to the squalid laundry of the renters who supposedly took over in the late 19th century. In this way, Severs wordlessly spins the tale of the house's decline, before it and others in the historic area known as Spitalfields became the darling of preservationists in the 1960s and '70s. When Severs bought the dilapidated house,he said, his purpose was not to renovate it but to bring it back to life.

On a first-floor desk, scribbled with quill pen on a piece of paper, are the words "pay attention," and that is what Severs asked, or literally demanded, of visitors to the house. He wanted people to use all five senses when investigating the past.

And when Severs was around to administer the tours, woe to the tourist who jingled coins, asked a coarse question or in any way seemed to disrespect the objects Severs had lovingly assembled. These folks he would forcibly eject into the street. Often, there was shrieking. The remaining visitors would then grow very quiet and attentive. That is how Severs wanted them.

"He terrified them into submission," recalls historian and neighbor Dan Cruickshank, who bought his nearby house in 1978. "He did it to open them up to the experience."

The Spitalfields Trust keeps the house open, thanks in part to the dedicated overseer Mick Pedroli, a former friend and employee of Severs. To pretty much everyone's surprise, the house not only continues to survive as a peculiar attraction but is also more popular than ever, attracting 15,000 people a year even though it is open only at odd hours. Admission is 10 or 12 pounds ($16.30 or $19.50), depending on the time you visit.

British fascination

Who was Dennis Severs, and what is the continuing allure of his singular and somewhat fanciful vision? He was born in 1948 to an elderly father, a beloved mother, and half brothers who were already out of the house.

His niece Stacey Shaffer recalls his hometown as "full of people working on muscle cars in their driveway" -- not a hobby Severs cultivated. His mother, Helen, died in 1960 when he was 11. Dennis had no intention of following his father, Earl, into the gas station business. He was already intoxicated with certain depictions of Britain -- particularly the black-and-white adaptations of "Oliver Twist" and "My Cousin Rachel" that he watched on TV after school. He found the atmospheric lighting of the films and of certain British and Flemish paintings more romantic and attractive than anything he saw in the bleached sunlight of northern San Diego County. He delivered newspapers and washed restaurant dishes until he could afford to take himself to Britain for the first time at the age of 15. Finally, five days after finishing high school, he moved there for good.

Lady Sarah Bagge met Severs at a ball in the Hyde Park Hotel when she was 20 and he was 21 and was immediately smitten with the charming American, who had already found a niche in society. "He was blond with blue green eyes and very good looking," she recalls. "He embraced the English life. He loved to go following the hounds; he was incredibly social. He knew all the families in Hampshire; being with him was one huge party from beginning to end."

Bagge recalls when Severs hit upon the idea of giving horse-drawn carriage tours of London. "It was a mad idea. He had mad ideas and made them happen." She remembers his excitement at finding a hay-strewn open carriage in a chicken-filled barn outside of London. After making his friends help dig it out, he went to the queen's stables to buy special carriage paint and applied layers and layers to get just the right patina. For years Severs was a tour guide. Then, he found the house.

Cruickshank met Severs at that time. "In a jiffy he transformed a derelict and decayed house into his vision of its former days," recalls Cruickshank. "It was an evocation of the past more alive than any museum could deliver, not dusty, very personal." As a neighbor, Cruickshank witnessed some of the more voluble ejections from the house, but he says he understands Severs' feelings. "He was always adding or amending the house; he was always in motion. The house was very much an extension of himself. It was his child, his playground. It was his soul, which explains why he was so testy when a person didn't get it."

Tim Knox is the director at London's Sir John Soane's Museum, a historical house and art collectionthat is scrupulously maintained. Also a former member of the Spitalfields Trust, Knox says he is surprised at the continued success of the Severs House. "When we took it on, I was the voice of caution," he recalls. "I didn't think it could be sustained without his presence. And I've been amazed by the staying power of Dennis' vision -- with all of its infelicities and its bonkerness."

Knox says that Severs harbored a huge distrust of academics and of museum directors. "He was a self-taught maverick and he didn't want anyone looking too closely or with too much literalness at what he was creating." Severs seems to have made an exception for Knox, who was asked to some of his many parties, though Knox suspects he was invited "only to the more staid events." He also recalls running into Severs scavenging for antiques at the market on Brick Lane. "He never spent much on anything. I remember him showing me what he said was a great find, an 18th century brass hand warmer. I wasn't at all convinced of its authenticity, but that's hardly the point.

"It was the whole of what he created, the amazing density of the detritus, the real urine in the chamber pot," continues Knox. "Simple things like the light of the candle and the smell of food are hugely evocative. The vow of silence also is quite clever. It bands people together into a strange brotherhood. Dennis had a marvelous eye for detail, and he took you on a funny kind of journey. I think museum directors have a lot to learn from him."

Knox, who himself was brought up in Africa, believes Severs' passion was "the zeal of the converted. Often people who collect or create environments come from a strangely different background," he says. "That Dennis wasn't born and bred was part of the secret. He overcompensated in an amazingly enthusiastic way."

Severs succumbed to non- Hodgkin's lymphoma on Dec. 27, 1999. His refusal to enter the 21st century seems like a fitting last act for the man from Escondido who preferred to live in the beautiful past of his own making.