On the Street Where You Live – Woodhall Drive and Avenue
By Ian McInnes
The ruins of Woodhall House were demolished during the summer of 1955. The Governors inspected the site in September on their ‘annual review’ and instructed the Austin Vernon, the Estate Architect to prepare a development scheme for the site with large private houses – on the lines of the development at Frank Dixon Way.
Vernon circulated a preliminary development plan in November, followed by a more detailed layout at a scale of 1:1250 in December, and confirmed that there would be 28 plots of varying size (from 1/5 to 5/8 of an acre) on the 13 acre site. His report noted that “the area is suitable for good-class houses, up to 2500 sq ft super if required, and this should be a strictly controlled development. I have planned for a minimum of roadways and these should be of the light estate standard – density 10 persons per acre.” The preliminary layout was quickly approved and the Manager was requested to look at two options, negotiating a building lease with a developer or the free development option, where each plot would be sold to individuals to build their own houses.
In a further report early in February 1956 the architect noted “As the road is not a through way, I suggest that a tarmac road be formed with grass verges and open spaces etc with special lamp standards and other amenities to form an attractive lay out”. Thus it would seem that the principles of the site layout and its open, unhedged feel were set early on. Despite the very ‘American’ feel of the development there was no obvious connection between the practice and America - some of Austin Vernon’s younger partners were later to go on foreign trips to Scandinavia and Switzerland but these were in the future.
Austin Vernon was in his mid 70s by this time and the design is certainly not his - his stylistic preference was for white render and Dutch gables as seen on several of the houses on Frank Dixon Way. The partner in charge of the scheme was Victor Knight, who had been at Architecture School with Russell Vernon, Austin Vernon’s nephew and partner, and had been brought into the practice in 1950 to design the Dulwich College Science Block. He had previously worked with the Miner’s Welfare Board and it seems that the concept was his alone.
At the next meeting the Manager reported “A free development on this basis would, I feel, take some years to complete, as the figure of ground rent is high and the inflationary tendencies at the present time would affect the demand for this type of plot with such high commitments.” He then went on to say that he had discussed the development of the site with Messrs Wates “who have evinced interest for some considerable time” and had asked whether they would be prepared to undertake the development on lease for the erection of 28 individually designed houses. He added “This they cannot do, but they are prepared to take up a building lease of the whole site and erect 28 detached houses with garages to sell at about £6000 each, to not less than 6 individual designs, each type to be varied by different elevational treatment if desired.”
Wates had in fact offered to provide all roads, verges, open spaces, sewers and services at their own cost, and agreed to pay a total of £1540 per annum ground rent (£55 per plot). They also offered “without commitment on either side”, to submit sketch drawings of the six types of houses proposed – to which the Governors agreed.
The scheme was developed over the next two years as the architect produced several different layouts for site density discussions with the LCC. These were finally resolved in June 1958 when a density of 12 persons to the acre was agreed – the final revised plan showing 42 houses on a 14 acre site.
At this point revised Sketch drawings were submitted showing three types of house “having a floor area of 2000 sq ft super, having good size living and dining rooms, kitchens and, in some cases, a small study, the usual domestic offices and central heating – 4 bedrooms and a bathroom, in some cases two bathroom – garages and enclosed yards.”
The Architect added, correctly as it turned out, that “Simple and attractive elevations have been designed to take advantage of modern constructional methods and materials. The development, when completed, could be an outstanding example of modern layout and planning.” The Manager reported that Wates were keen to move forward but the final decision was deferred pending submission of a model.
It took nearly 6 months to produce the model and the scheme was finally signed off in January 1959 with the revised drawings. The Manager was instructed to get on with negotiations for a building agreement with Wates and a formal offer, signed by Mr Neil Wates, a director, was received on 11th April. Wates agreed to take the site for 99 years from the 24th June 1959, at a peppercorn rent for the first two years, and thereafter at a total ground rent of £2310 per annum (£55 per annum per plot) to erect 42 detached houses with garages within two years. By this time the projected cost of the houses had risen to £16,000 – a very substantial sum for a house at that time.
Russell Vernon had taken over the role of Estate Architect from his uncle in June 1959 and it was he who submitted the working drawings of the first house on Plot 5, fronting College Road, in July, noting that “Careful siting of this house has been necessary owing to the gradients and trees”. His quarterly report dated 11th November confirmed that the building agreement had been exchanged, that work on the first house had started, and that the whole site should commence in earnest in the spring of 1960.
In April 1960 Woodhall Drive and Woodhall Avenue were agreed as names for the new roads and by June the first four houses were approximately 30% complete. Work on the roads and sewers had also commenced and by the end of the year the architect was able to report “the first house is complete and furnished as a show house and is available for viewing.” An article in ‘Wates News’ announcing the completion of the show house noted that “Applicants for these luxury homes are shown around by appointment and meanwhile considerable press interest has been aroused. Miss Alice Hope devoted her whole column in a recent ‘Daily Telegraph’ to pictures and descriptions of what she called ‘a new trend in home buying’. The adaptability for family living of these designs by Austin Vernon & Partners has aroused a great deal of comment, and so have the high standards of finishes and extensive use of hardwoods. The houses are completely central heated by oil-fired systems remotely controlled from an electric panel in the kitchen.”
There were now six different house types and in January 1961 working drawings were approved for houses at 97 College Road, 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7 Woodhall Avenue, and 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 Woodhall Drive. The Architect noted “The drawings before you are of the types indicated above and formally approved by the Governors, and are varied to accord with site conditions and levels. Careful consideration has been given to positioning on the site so as to give as much variation as possible.” To make the scheme easier to understand he produced an axonometric projection “ to give some ideas of the dispositions of the properties as seen from above, as I feel that this will be helpful.”
However by the Board Meeting on 14th April 1961 the initial optimism was failing. The houses were not selling as hoped and the Estate had to agree to a substantial extension of the pepper-corn rent period, and the building period, of 18 months and 2 years respectively.
At the July meeting it was suggested that the proximity of the Grange Lane allotments might be affecting sales and in September, the Manager was instructed to enter into negotiations with the Camberwell & District Allotment & Horticultural Society regarding a surrender of a part of their holding in Grange Lane to provide an amenity space for the development. However, by October, Wates had changed their minds saying that they had no objection to the proximity of the allotments.
On 31st March 1962 the Manager reported that Wates had, so far, only “sold 12 houses with 3 under reserve, an average of one house per month since selling commenced and they do not expect to improve upon this average. There are 15 months on the building period to run, and they had considered whether they should ask either permission to introduce new types at a lower price or apply for an extension of the building period. As a result of consultation they now agree that it would be against all interest to lower the standard, and suggest the Governors might, in the circumstances, extend the period of the pepper-corn rent and the building period by one year and eighteen months respectively.”
By the middle of 1964 Wates had grown tired of the lack of sales progress (there were 14 sites still left) and briefed the architects to design a smaller Type F house which they built out on all the remaining plots. Work continued on the site through 1965 and 1966 till all the houses were finally sold.
The cost of building houses on the more steeply sloping parts of the site had proved higher than expected and selling prices for one or two of the houses were nudging £20,000 – making them even more difficult to sell. Malcolm Pringle, one of Russell Vernon’s partners, recalled fifty years later the Wates Financial Director saying that his firm would lose money on the development but that the architects would receive an award - which they did, the scheme winning a 1967 Ministry of Housing and Local Government Award for good design in Housing.
The superb mature landscaping by Derek Lovejoy & Partners has meant that the overall appearance of the estate remains largely original but there have been a large number of extensions, not all of them sympathetic, and several houses have been badly compromised. In fact it was the number of extensions on the Woodhall Estate that finally persuaded the Governors to begin the introduction of the ‘Design Guidance Notes’ that underpin their development policies today.