I've been geeking out this weekend with a long-coveted book that's just arrived via "Royal Mail" --- with an assist on this end from the U.S. Postal Service.
It's called "Uppark Restored" and incorporates one of the great restoration detective stories of the 20th century --- the phoenix-like rise from the ashes of Uppark, a 17th century house in West Sussex that was devastated by fire on Aug. 30, 1989, fully restored by Britain's National Trust and opened its doors to visitors again during 1995.
The National Trust published this report during 1996, but it was very expensive at the time and not distributed in the United States. Plus, it used to be very complicated to order a book --- or anything else --- from overseas: Lengthy correspondence, currency exchange via money orders involving treks to the bank, then long waits.
The miracles of the digital age, plus Amazon, have smoothed that rocky path. My gently used copy (the book is out of print) cost roughly $10, including postage and handling, and took about 10 days to arrive from an English bookseller.
Uppark was built ca. 1690 for Ford Grey, later Earl of Tankerville, and remodeled and redecorated by various owners prior to ca. 1815, after which time more or less stood still. Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, owner during the early years of the 19th century, married his dairy-maid --- Mary Ann Bullock, some 50 years his junior --- in 1825 and both she and later owners focused their attention on conserving what was there rather than changing it, although modern conveniences were introduced.
In 1930, it passed to the Meade-Fetherstonhaugh family, also careful preservationists, who gave the house to the National Trust during 1954 but continued to occupy the upper floors.
Disaster struck during August of 1989 as workers were completing roof repairs, using a torch to secure lead guttering. Although unaware it had happened, the workmen inadvertently set timbers under the roof on fire. By the time the flames were discovered it was too late. Firefighters arrived promptly, but because the house is located deep in the country the water supply was inadequate to fight a blaze of this scale and the building was "gutted."
Or so it was thought at the time. True, the upper floors, within the sturdy brick walls, were a total loss and debris from those floors crashed through the elaborate ceilings of the ground-floor show rooms. But about 95 percent of the contents of the show rooms were safely removed by firefighters, staff and volunteers as the flames spread and a good deal of the fabric of those rooms, although damaged, survived as well.
What followed was perhaps the most exhaustive salvage operation undertaken in Britain as every ounce of debris was searched and sifted for fragments of the house, including bits and pieces of damaged plasterwork.
There was considerable debate after the fire about what should be done with the building. Some thought it should be demolished; others thought it should be restored, sort of, but given a modern interior to be used as a museum setting for what had survived the fire.
The building was fully insured, but full pay-out would come only if it were restored and that, plus the fact so much of the original fabric had survived, tipped the balance in favor of restoring Uppark so far as possible to the appearance it had on the day before fire broke out.
"Uppark Restored" is the story of that restoration process and it reads, to someone interested in historic preservation, just like a detective story.
Some of the skills needed to undertake the restoration were thought to be extinct --- there were, for example, no artisans trained to sculpt lime plaster free-hand into elaborate ceiling decorations. But talented people were found and trained to do all of these tasks. And pioneering conservation work was undertaken as damaged fabric, paintings and wallpaper were conserved, restored and supplemented by authentic reproductions.
This is a fascinating piece of reporting --- and I can't put it down.