Dear Fiona: Is it totally wrong to strip out a house’s original features, or are there instances when it is okay?

House & Garden's friendly resident decorating columnist and agony aunt Fiona McKenzie Johnston offers advice and wisdom on a common moral quandary in interiors

The entry hall to Lucy Williams' Victorian terrace in London.

Christoper Horwood

Dear Fiona,

We’ve recently bought a Victorian terrace in south London, and we love it – but we’re having some issues.

Firstly, the rooms are such awkward shapes that we’re really limited in how we can arrange furniture, and even what furniture we can fit in. Basically, the chimney breasts are so wide that you can’t get chests of drawers into the bedroom as the spaces either side aren’t big enough to fit them – and because of the chimney breast, there’s only one place the bed can go, etc. There are fireplaces in the chimney breasts, which are pretty enough – but of course we can’t use them as it’s not legal to have open fires in London, which increases my resentment of the whole set-up.

My next bugbear is the dado rail in the sitting room. Our sofa is quite modern and boxy and the back finishes substantially lower than the rail. I’m planning to knock through to the dining room, which doesn’t have a dado rail – so it might look weird to have one room with and one without? Then, the doors all seem to open in odd directions, making every room feel smaller. They open into the room, rather than against the wall, and so knock everything off bedside tables and side tables – but my mother maintains that this is ‘correct’. Finally, the house has got the original tiling in the hall – which our friends get really excited about and tell us we’re really lucky – but it’s chipped, and it’s a sort of dark brown and dirty pink geometric floral pattern, and I really don’t love it, especially when I look at tile catalogues and see the wealth of lighter, brighter tiles that I could have.

So, how wrong is it to take out original features? (I’m not 100% certain on the date of the fireplaces so they might not be original – but I think the other things are.) I sort of can’t believe I’m asking this; before we bought this house it was totally something I would have disapproved of, and if it was older – say, Georgian – I wouldn’t. But Victorian isn’t that old, is it? And I need a means of storing clothes in the bedrooms!

Thank you so much.


Stuck on Mouldings XX

Dear Stuck,

I empathise – also living in a Victorian terrace, with enormous chimney breasts in every room, and oddly positioned doors which make affecting a symmetrical layout almost impossible (I’d have to have a very small sofa in the sitting room if I wanted it to be dead opposite the fireplace.) And you’re right that many of these mouldings (mouldings being a catch-all term for skirting boards, architraves, doors, fireplaces, staircases, picture rails, dado rails, cornicing and stuccoed ceilings) no long have practical purpose, instead being expressions of architectural style – which is why they’re valued.

Of course, they haven’t always been valued by everybody, and post-war, when the country was gripped by determined modernisation, stripping period features became quite the thing, and remained quite the thing until well into the 1990s. The architectural historian Charles Brooking spent his teenage years skip-diving on the streets of West London and built up such an assortment of original mouldings that he’s opened a museum of them in Cranleigh. That collection has formed the basis of Atkey & Company’s range of reproductions for those who are endeavouring to replace items that others have removed, and so restore character to rooms. All this is a roundabout way of saying yes, theoretically you can strip whatever you like (so long as your house isn’t listed or in a conservation area) but equally, you need to know that there are many who will judge you for it. But decorating by popular vote is not a recipe for progression, so let’s look at it more closely. It’s a muddy area - as Roger Jones of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler points out, “there are no hard and fast rules”. However, there are things to think about, which aren’t only aesthetic, but practical.

The sitting room in Katie Glaister's Edwardian house in Wimbledon. Katie removed some of the original mouldings from the house to give it new life.

Mark Fox

So, aesthetics, which involves acknowledging – as you have found – that mouldings can be old, and yet not original. There are quite a few Georgian houses with Victorian picture rails (sometimes they rather abruptly abut an arch “which is how you can tell they’re not original,” says Rupert Cunningham, director of Ben Pentreath’s architectural practice.) Equally, there is many a Victorian terrace with a slightly incongruous Art-Deco fireplace or two; Pandora Taylor found these in hers, and removed them, while conceding that “someone somewhere might have seen them as historical treasures to be kept and admired.” (It’s also not uncommon to find houses with mouldings that are older than the house – but that’s by the by.) The real crux is personal taste – which is subjective – and led to Katie Glaister removing some of the original mouldings from her Edwardian house in Wimbledon. For while she appreciated the space and internal width that the period of house provides, “I find Edwardian cornicing and dado rails rather pretentious,” she says, matter-of-factly.

Katie’s approach is worth examining more closely. The first thing to note is that as she removed, so she replaced. That Edwardian cornicing was swapped for “non-style-defining timber frames. I kept the proportions, but changed the meaning,” - which is a transferable lesson, proportion being a key tenet of interior design. Similarly, she exchanged existing tiles for other “more attractive” tiles. The next thing to heed is that when Katie knocked out a wall or a chimney breast, she left a trace of its existence. “I kept all the timber flooring and used infill rather than trying to match it – so you can see where things were.” Her method maintains the house’s history – but it also means that future occupants can, if they want to, see exactly where they should put things back.

The living space at the back of Angelica Squire's Victorian house is long and cosy, given a lateral feel by low furniture including two chairs from Halabala, covered in Veere Grenney’s ‘Folly’ fabric.

Owen Gale

This leads us on to your own chimney breast problems. As Roger says, “a house is a machine for living in, and of course it may need to be updated or adapted to suit the lifestyle of its current occupants,” – which you can decide to read as carte blanche if you feel you need permission for your proposal, but you should know it’s not a quick (or cheap) job. Juliette Byrne points out that “you’ll need to take advice from a reputable contractor, because you’re going to need to use lintels or steels to support the chimney stacks.” You’re in a terrace, so you’ll also need to think about party walls – which means agreement from your neighbours - and sound insulation. Lastly, even Katie reckons that it would be shame to remove all the chimney breasts, and suggests you think very hard before taking them out of downstairs rooms, too. What I will say is that we managed to fit in chests of drawers in by removing the skirting boards in the alcoves, which gave us another three inches in each. Alternatively, you could have fitted cupboards built, or find slimmer chests of drawers. Another option is to narrow the chimney breasts (though this will alter proportion); you would need a builder, for you’ll also need to replaster and restore the cornicing and picture rail afterwards. Finally know that if you remove the non-original fireplaces, you will have more space because you’ll have another flat wall – albeit on a chimney breast.

‘We wanted our hall to be inviting as well as intriguing,’ explains stylist Sarah Corbett-Winder of her London house. Thanks to an characterful assortment of Farrow & Ball paint colours on the walls, the original chequerboard floor tiles – likely similar to those found in asker ‘Stuck’s' house – are modernised.

The key, with all of this, is to think about the future as well as the present, especially if this is a house that you don’t think you’ll live in forever. So please feel free to remove the dado (though do try painting it the same colour as your walls first and see if it still bothers you – or if you even notice it) as they’re easy to put back. Do rehang your doors (your mother is right, it was once correct practice – according to Edith Wharton - for them to open so that they shielded whoever was in the room, but this is definitely a rule to be broken) - or do as Juliette suggests, and turn them into sliding doors which is another means of increasing space. And do open the rooms, for walls can go up just as they come down. But as regards your tiled hall floor, once that’s gone it’s gone, so unless it’s badly chipped, I’d urge you to decorate around it in the first instance, and then see how you feel, for its amazing how altering one thing can have a positive impact on another. (If you do then decide to replace it, please make sure that it’s of equal quality and has design merit – there’s nothing worse than what Pandora describes as “cheap imitations without the soul.”)

You may, at this point, think that I’ve given you rather a woolly, non-committed response to your letter – and you’d be correct. For I don’t want to advocate ripping out original features, even though I concede that there are instances in which it makes sense (and Katie certainly shows us how to do it well.) Roger asks a pertinent question, which is why have bought this house rather than one “more obviously attuned to your taste and needs”? But you say you love it, so I think perhaps it does suit your taste and needs – if you’d wanted boxy featureless rooms, you’d have looked for a new build - only you’ve panicked on moving your furniture in, which is not unusual. The thing is that the furniture has to fit the house, rather than vice-versa (which is why Alexandra Tolstoy sold a lot of hers when she moved to her Victorian terrace in Battersea.)

So, tread carefully – but I hope that you find some solutions in this answer.

With love,

Fiona XX