Sherlock Holmes (fans) and the case of the empty house
In the strange case of the derelict house, there’s no mystery surrounding the identity of its most famous occupant. Not only did Arthur Conan Doyle live at Undershaw, but he designed the place himself and produced some of his finest work under its gabled roofs, including “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
What baffles John Gibson is how the home of one of Britain’s best-known authors has been all but abandoned, left to fall into disrepair and pegged for conversion into a block of apartments.
You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that a crime against Britain’s literary heritage is in the offing, Gibson says. And so this somewhat excitable Conan Doyle devotee has embarked on a race to save the crumbling Victorian manor where some of the best-loved classics of English detective fiction were written and where people such as “Dracula” creator Bram Stoker used to drop by for a drink.
The campaign to rescue the house has drawn the support of a raft of authors, actors and descendants of the Conan Doyle family. Gibson, a retired surveyor, is also aided by his own Watson-like figure, a devout spiritualist (as was Conan Doyle) who says she saw the author and his family in a vision last year.
But the forces arrayed against them are a formidable lot whose ranks include, according to Gibson, a profit-driven developer, unsympathetic local officials and an incorrigible gang of cultural snobs. Since the local authority has already decided that the developer’s proposed overhaul is perfectly reasonable — and it is his property, after all — time is running out to foil the dastardly plans: The hammers start raining blows on Undershaw as early as next month.
The three-story red-brick structure forlornly awaits its fate, with its windows boarded up and its yard going weedy, exuding an air of sad neglect at odds with the trim and tidy aspect of the rest of Hindhead, a small community here in the southern English county of Surrey.
Conan Doyle built the house at the turn of the 20th century on an elevated spot where he believed the fresh breezes from the surrounding countryside would have a restorative effect on his consumptive wife, Louise. From the upper floors, the couple gazed out on a magnificent vista stretching for miles.
“Even today, you do not see another building,” Gibson said. “All you see is a never-ending sea of greenery.”
Preservationists acknowledge that, as an architectural specimen, Undershaw is handsome, but not particularly distinguished, at least not in a land dotted with medieval castles, enormous stately homes and elegant Georgian townhouses.
It’s the interior and what happened there that make the house special, activists say.
The Conan Doyles furnished their home with stained-glass windows bearing ancestral coats of arms, in an impressive statement of pedigree that has been marred by vandals, who have broken some of them. The grand staircase incorporated extremely shallow steps to avoid taxing Louise too much. Typical for its era, the house also boasted a billiards room.
But most important was Conan Doyle’s study, a book-lined sanctum where he wrote such portentous words as “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” and where he brought his eccentric detective back to life, by popular demand, after killing him off in a duel with the evil genius Professor Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls.
Conan Doyle spent a decade at Undershaw, until 1907, the year after his wife succumbed to her tuberculosis. He remarried after her death, and died in 1930.
His gimlet-eyed detective, of course, lived on to become one of the best-known fictional characters of all time, instantly recognized the world over in his cape and deerstalker hat, with a pipe stuck between his teeth.
In fact, the campaign to save Conan Doyle’s house comes at a moment when his famous creation seems especially prominent in the national consciousness. Holmes is the subject of a recent Hollywood blockbuster starring Robert Downey Jr. and a West End play, and a just-concluded three-part TV series on the BBC earned stellar ratings and almost hysterically rapturous reviews. (And only in Britain could a character named Sherlock Holmes be played by an actor with the even more preposterous name of Benedict Cumberbatch.)
All of this, Gibson fumes, makes the decision by the Waverley Borough Council to allow Undershaw to be converted into apartments even more confounding. The house’s facade will remain, but the building will be enlarged and divided into units that will destroy the original layout and, as Gibson puts it, 113 years of history.
“Why do Waverley [councilors] think the appropriate use for this property is nine lock-up-and-leave units, when this author is such a cult worldwide?” he said.
Officials respond that they don’t favor one use over another. For decades, the place served not as a private residence but as a hotel, which closed in 2004. The developer who now owns the house and land is entitled to make alterations as long as they’re safe, practicable and within the law.
The council approved the developer’s plans in June after reviewing all the relevant data, including “satisfactory reports on bats and badgers” at the property. The meeting was attended by a few objectors, including one dressed as Holmes. Also present was Conan Doyle’s great-nephew, whose young son cried when the decision came down.
“Old houses are old houses. This one has a spectacular history,” said Richard Doyle, 45. “It’s a fabulous place.”
Demands from preservationists that the council buy the property from the developer, at a cost of up to $2.4 million, were a nonstarter.
“We don’t have that sort of money,” said Matthew Evans, the council’s chief of planning. “We have to tighten our belt.”
The developer’s agent boasts that it “has out-sleuthed Sherlock Holmes” by winning permission for the renovation. The developer’s plans provide for a small pavilion to be built at the edge of the property where visitors could look out at the house and read explanations of its significance.
Campaigners have tried unsuccessfully to get Undershaw bumped up to the top tier of listed historical buildings, which would give it protected status and make alterations more difficult. But a government-sponsored report declared that the house was not very noteworthy architecturally and that its associations with Conan Doyle didn’t quite cut it.
“He cannot be said to be an author of the standing of, for example, Charles Dickens or Jane Austen,” the report said.
Gibson was outraged. “This is elitism, snobbishness writ large,” he said.
He and his partner in the preservation drive, Lynn Gale, refuse to be discouraged, though they’re heading for a cliffhanger. They’re looking for legal grounds on which to fight the renovation, while hoping that some benefactor might step forward and rescue the house.
Their ideal would be to turn Undershaw into a destination on a bus tour for Conan Doyle fans that would naturally include a stop on Baker Street in central London, where Holmes and Watson lived at the fictional address of 221B.
“My dream is to resurrect Undershaw, just like Sherlock Holmes was resurrected there,” said Gale. “We’re not going to give up. I won’t give up.”
Elementary, my dear.