At the end of the 19th century, Joseph Henry Ball – a student of Alfred Waterhouse, the architect of the Natural History Museum in London – built a remarkable house in the earldom of Surrey just south of London. The home, called Undershaw, was curious not due to the eclectic architecture, but because of the prominent resident, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The house was built in a mediocre Arts and Crafts inspired mish-mash style, which Hermann Muthesius probably had in mind while writing his standard reference from 1904, "Das englische Haus", and which has recently become popular again. In 2004, an English developer bought the dilapidated house with the intention of replacing it with two weekend houses for wealthy, yet likely oblivious, customers. So far, the government and the preservation offices have stated simply that the house itself is not architecturally notable, and that Sir Arthur did not have the stature of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, therefore the home cannot be protected against demolition.
Sadly, this may be true, but another reality lies beneath the physical structure and appearance of Undershaw. Then again, perhaps the other reality exists only with a dose of imagination or a healthy knowledge of the house and its inhabitants.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle selected the site for its subtle and dry climate, an area then known as little Switzerland, in hopes that his wife, Louise, could recover from tuberculosis. In May 1895, he wrote to his mother saying that, had they requested a specially constructed landscape, it could not be more perfect than the acreage he had just bought. He soon commissioned Mr. Ball, an old friend and architect whom he considered to have meticulous taste and a critical mind, for construction on the site. The house was partially designed by Sir Arthur himself, who created a fairy tale house with expansive windows to light the spaces and to circulate fresh air to optimize treatment of his wife’s illness. This, and the red brick construction, resulted in an intriguing appearance, something between a sanatorium and private home, yet remarkably snug and cozy. In the large, south facing windows, specially manufactured stained glass depicting the Doyle Family’s coat of arms personalized the residence.
Undershaw’s main entrance opened into a large double height entry hall with a brick fireplace and led to the dining room. With seating for thirty people, this was clearly intended as a place for socializing with friends and acquaintances. A grand staircase with gently rising stairs would prevent Louise from becoming winded while ascending to the two upper levels. The home was built away from the congestion of the city in the beauty of Surrey’s rolling hills, but had all the comforts of an urban residence, including a generator for electric lighting. With this home, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created the seemingly perfect surroundings to prolong and animate the lives of both his wife and his protagonists.
In 1897, the Doyle Family moved into the house, bringing a welcome stability to their lives. It was here that Sherlock Holmes, who had supposedly drowned in the Reichenbach Falls, again came to life in The Hound of the Baskervilles,which was serialized in The Strand Magazine from August 1901 to April 1902. One could convincingly argue that Undershaw was not only the home of Sir Arthur, but also the site of Sherlock Holmes’ reincarnation.
In the years that the family lived in the house, between 1897 and 1907, Undershaw was a destination for a number of illustrious personalities and famous English authors. Virginia Woolf visited the home regularly, and could often be found strolling through the beautiful scenery of the grounds. On one particular day, a visit by William Gillette, the renown actor who brought Sherlock Holmes to life, more fully realized the character than on any stage of the era. One year after his beloved Louise’s death to tuberculosis, in 1907, Bram Stroker and James Matthew Barrie visited Undershaw, spending many days with Sir Arthur on the golf links and discussing the future of English literature.
Ultimately, the fact that the three fathers of what are arguably some of the most famous figures in English literature met here did not suffice to guarantee the home’s preservation. But just imagine a place where Sherlock Holmes and Peter Pan stand waiting for Dracula!