Chiswick House conservatory closed indefinitely, at risk of collapse

Image above: Chiswick House conservatory; photograph Jennifer Griffiths

Emergency repairs could exceed £5m

A report into the state of the Conservatory at Chiswick House has found it is at risk of collapse and is no longer safe for public use.

Emergency repairs, due to be completed in January 2023, are being carried out to stop the building from collapsing but this is considered to be a short-term fix. Chiswick House & Gardens Trust say more radical action is now required.

The wings of the conservatory have been closed all this year, with only the rotunda in use. The whole conservatory will remain closed over the winter, but Chiswick House Trust hopes to open the rotunda again in March.

The Conservatory used to be opened to the public in February and March to show the heritage collection of camellias, which bloom over winter, but if the rotunda is reopened in March the wings will stay closed.

Keeping the existing conservatory no longer considered “viable”

Over the past ten years, Chiswick House and Gardens Trust has already spent £98,000 on repairs, with the emergency work expected to cost Hounslow council, which owns the site, a further £60,000.

Chiswick House & Gardens Trust paid for a team of experts to explore what options exist for the future of the Conservatory, using money from the Culture Recovery Fund. They concluded that because of the degree of fungal decay in the timber structure, retaining and repairing the existing fabric is not considered viable.

The costs of full repair options range from £2.7m to £5.5m. The report adds the cost of ongoing maintenance repair costs, even after these expensive improvements, will amount to tens of thousands of pounds a year.

Image above: Chiswick House Conservatory; photograph Jon Perry

Reconstruction options – or possibly demolition

The Chiswick House & Gardens Trust is now looking at options for reconstruction of the Conservatory. They are looking at four options, but are also keeping the option of demolishing the Conservatory onthe table as a “fallback … if reconstruction should prove to be unachievable”.

A full report is not expected to be presented to Hounslow Council until next autumn.

In a statement published by the Trust, Chairman Sir Derek Myers points out the current conservatory is not the original, built in 1813. The walls, floors and backsheds masonry structures are still predominantly from 1813, but the current timber glasshouse superstructure dates from the 1930s.

Conservatory “not the Trust’s first priority”

Sir Derek continued:

‘The Conservatory cannot be our first priority, given the huge sums required to give it a new long-term future.

“In recognition of its importance, conservation of the Conservatory will be the second phase in the Trust’s multi-phase 10-year vision. We are therefore working in partnership with the London Borough of Hounslow, who own the Conservatory, to put together a partnership project.

“This will allow us to progress planning for the future of the Conservatory, with a view to securing this iconic building.

“In the meantime, we are committed to monitoring the condition of the Conservatory and carrying out interim repairs, with the support of London Borough of Hounslow, to ensure we can continue to use the central rotunda for weddings, events and for our visitors to access the Kitchen Garden.”

The Trust has ambitious plans for extending its charitable work beyond the maintenance and conservation of the historic gardens and buildings, “to ensure we can offer opportunities for learning and enhancing confidence and wellbeing for our local community.”

They want to create a ‘Cultural Hub’ to improve community and learning facilities, which they say are “vital first steps for securing the future of the House and Gardens in the current economic climate, as well as providing opportunities for skills building and supporting the local economy.”

Image above: Where the Beatles recorded the music video for Paperback Writer

“Major accident” likely if emergency repairs are not carried out

Since 2008 the building has been repaired three times, which has cost tens of thousands of pounds, but these piecemeal repairs have not been able to stop the advance of the decay. Chiswick House & Gardens say this reactive cycle of repairs are “unsatisfactory” as new areas of deterioration are constantly being discovered and even when they are not a structural risk they make it look as though the building is “unloved”.

The report submitted to LB Hounslow says:

“The structure is now fundamentally weakened and most of the building is not safe for public use and has been closed off. Without emergency repairs, the building will deteriorate faster and cost more money to renovate and risk a collapse for which the Council would be responsible as the owner.

“Reactive emergency repairs are only a short-term mitigation and that failing to bring forward a scheme for full renovation and structural in a timely manner is likely to increase the risk of building collapse or a major accident.”

Images: Chiswick House & Gardens collection of heritage camellia plants

What will happen to the camellia collection?

The Conservatory and the unique collection of heritage camellia plants housed within it are a big draw for visitors to Chiswick House Gardens. The original, completed in 1813, was commissioned by the 6th Duke of Devonshire, the great-grandson of Lord Burlington and designed by Samuel Ware, who also built Burlington Arcade in Piccadilly.

At 300ft long, it was one of the earliest large glass houses to be built and thus a forerunner of Decimus Burton’s glass house at Kew and Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace. It is also the place where the Beatles recorded what is thought to be the first ever music video for Paperback Writer.

The Trust website describes it as: “definitely one of the beloved icons of our Estate!”

On the safety of the camellias, which are usually shown every February – March, the Trust says:

“The camellia is a hardy plant and prefers to be outside. It gets too hot under glass and camellias need regular watering, to be kept shaded (by pulling the blinds down) and free of pests and disease. To safeguard the camellias, we have taken cuttings and we also have plantings of duplicates outside where they are thriving without regular care other than seasonal pruning.”

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