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Restoring Former Glory
The Fairfax Place fire of May 2010 was one of Dartmouth’s most dramatic events - and a year of planning setbacks and huge challenges could have set the buildings’ five separate owners against one another and risked them all giving in.
But when By the Dart went to speak to them all, they all spoke of the positive cooperation which has allowed them to move towards the rebuilding of this historic and beautiful building.
The buildings of Fairfax Place and Higher Street are now nearing ready for the slow rebuilding process to begin – after twelve months of meetings, debate, problems and hard work.
The owners of the buildings have formed a group to meet and decide every action that needs to be taken, and have found that the process, although obviously difficult and traumatic for all involved, has been free from arguments and blame.
‘We’ve come together with the knowledge that we have no option but to rebuild,’ said Simon Entwistle, of the Smith Street Deli. ‘We were all in the same boat and knew that we had to rebuild – and as quickly as possible. Insurance companies don’t just step in and do it all for you, so we formed the group to make sure we were all working together. We have worked well.’
‘There’s not been one thing we haven’t found agreement on,’ said Lesley Challacombe of Singer and Singer Estate & Letting agents. ‘We’ve found that this is a unique situation – that no fire anywhere in Britain seems to have been this complicated in terms of the number of freeholders, businesses and people misplaced. Because of that, we’ve been going through this with no real advice on how to proceed. That’s caused some delays, but we couldn’t have done anything differently.’
After the initial shock of the fire itself - which ripped through the buildings in a matter of hours, sending plumes of smoke across the town of Dartmouth and left six families and five businesses homeless - the freeholders had to get together to make things happen.
‘We brought in structural engineers – Paul Carpenter Associates – to see what state the building structure was in,’ said Simon. ‘We had no idea how sound the buildings were – they were full of debris and very dangerous. It was all a guessing game – so we elected to build a support scaffold which would hold the building’s structure till the inside could be cleared and an assessment made.’
This was the massive, imposing scaffold structure which was built last year, with a massive roof covering the whole building. As it turned out most of the buildings were structurally much stronger than even the most optimistic of the free holders had anticipated – apart from the façade of the Tudor Building in Higher Street, owned by Tim and Becca Way.
‘That the front of the building is still standing is just miraculous,’ said Tim. ‘All the weight of the building was going through one beam at the front – a beam taken from a ship. The fire has left that cracked. It’s now supported by scaffolding, but most people can’t believe it didn’t come down before the scaffolding was erected.’
Once the safety of the buildings was established the scaffolding was ‘thinned out’ and turned into a working scaffold, and work began to clear the tons of debris filling the burnt out buildings.
The strip out took place under strict controls so that any part of the original building which could still be used would be left and, if possible, incorporated back into the rebuilt structure.
After three surveys – establishing what had been there before the fire, what was there after it, and how it could be restored – it was time to bring in architects to draw up plans. This process brought about some surprising historical facts.
‘It turns out our building is one of the oldest,’ said Simon. ‘The shop was a merchant’s store, shop and home when the waterside was where Fairfax Place is today.’
Lesley Challacombe said; ‘We have found that our building has been built onto an existing building. You can also see in the other buildings that there are hundreds of tiny bricks which were brought to the town by merchants as ballast in their ships – its amazing what you can now see.’
This is the point where the freeholders found themselves going at different paces, and creates the confusion which surrounds the state of the rebuilding process in the wider town.
Planning permission is coming through for most of the freeholders – who are based in Grade two listed buildings. But the Higher Street Tudor Building, which did hold a Thai restaurant at the time of the fire, is Grade Two *, which means that Tim and Becca – who only took ownership of the building from their parents Nigel and Anne Way six weeks before the fire – have to fulfil more criteria to receive their planning permission. The rebuild for that building is also much more complicated because the front of the building cannot be touched.
‘We have a lot of challenges to face,’ said Tim. ‘We are looking at ways in which we can rebuild the place without damaging it and also supporting the front. We are currently examining ways of doing that. But it has to be said it’s a long road. We have to put the building back, and the plan is to do so in a way which is in keeping with the original building, and actually bringing back features which were ripped out in the 1960s.’
Sarah Squire, of the Wheelhouse Fish and Chip restaurant – which she owns with her brother Jonathan Walker - said that the process of rebuilding could now begin for them.
‘It’s incredible inside,’ she said, ‘it’s like a film set - there’s just nothing really, just burnt wood and debris. It’s been frustrating waiting for it to start, but now we can be positive and look forward – there’s a blank canvas for us to use to rebuild from. It’s a new beginning.’
Simon said: ‘Everything up to now has been quite negative – we have been stripping out, knocking down - but now we have planning permission it’s the start of a more positive process. We have hit bottom and are heading up.’
Now the work begins for the Wheelhouse, Singer and Singer, the Smith Street Deli and the Higher Street Gallery. Workers are starting to come on site to begin the rebuilding process. For some the hope is that the work could be finished by Easter next year, but some work will continue long beyond that.
The freeholders have worked together up to now to bring this massive, daunting and unbelievably complicated project this far- now they are determined to finish the job.
‘We all want the people of the town to know that we understand how disruptive this has been,’ said Simon. ‘We have done our best to make sure the process of rebuilding has taken as little time as possible. We had no idea how difficult it would be – but we are getting there, slowly.’
Photos and words by Phil Scoble
To see a more extensive online slideshow of the photos taken for this article. go to By The Dart’s Facebook Page (http://companies.to/bythedart/ *)
First published July 2011 By the Dart