This section is from the book "Hints On Household Taste In Furniture, Upholstery And Other Details", by Charles L. Eastlake. Also available from Amazon: Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details.
How far this detestable practice has increased in London anyone familiar with the principal suburban squares and streets can well testify. But what the general public do not know is that the structural deceits which it conceals are daily becoming so numerous and flagrant that they positively endanger life and property. How frequently have we heard, during the last few years, of the fall of houses which have been built even within the recollection of the rising generation ? The only wonder is that these casualties do not happen every day. Of course, when an accident has occurred, the district surveyor is called in as a responsible agent to give evidence before the authorities of the state in which the house was when he last examined it. But this examination is too frequently a mere matter of form. It is the surveyor's business to arrest and remedy any gross violation of the Building Act. But in a populous and suburban district, where houses are being run up (as the phrase is) in all directions, it is impossible for him to be in all places at once or attempt to keep up a constant supervision. Besides, in the matter of bricklaying, as in all other concerns of life, it is very easy to keep within the letter of the law and at the same time disregard its spirit.
The Act itself, though framed in such a manner as to exclude many picturesque features from a London street, is on the whole rather lenient on the subject of roof-scantlings and the dimensions of a party-wall. An architect who should attempt to add to the effect of his elevation by a bay-window looking into the street or by overhanging eaves (even provided with a gutter) would find himself somewhat impeded by existing legislation. Yet a heavy 'compo' cornice, barely strong enough to support itself, is allowed to project a considerable distance from the front wall, daily threatening the lives of passers-by; and a miserable lintel, composed of fragments of brick, stuck together with mortar in the weakest possible form, is often used under the name of a 'flat arch.'
These are only a few of the legalised evils of modern house building. As for those which are forgotten, overlooked, or winked at, their number is legion. Not only is plaster or cement used as a covering for inferior brickwork, but it is boldly employed for columns, parapets, and verandah balusters in place of stone. It is not at all an uncommon thing to see a would-be Doric or Corinthian shaft truncated of its base, and actually hanging to the side of a house until the pedestal (which, of course, will also be of cement) is completed. Plaster brackets support plaster pediments, stucco bas reliefs are raised upon a stucco ground. The whole front is a sham, from the basement story to the attics. But murder will out, and by-degrees this prodigious imposition begins to reveal itself. A mouldy green dampness exudes from the hastily finished walls. The ill-fated stucco blisters up and peels off in all directions. Ugly fissures appear on the house-front, caused by some 'settlement,' arising from bad foundations. The wretched parodies on carved work become chipped away by accident, or crumble to fragments under the influence of the weather. There is an air of shabby gentility about the whole structure which would be ludicrous if it were not pitiable. It had only a meretricious excellence when fresh from the painter's hands. A few years have made it a dingy abode : a few more years will make it a ghastly ruin.
The interior arrangements are not a whit better. Floorboards come up unexpectedly after separating from the skirting; doors shrink so that they cannot be securely fastened; window-sashes warp and become immovable; marble chimney-pieces are gradually detached from the wall behind them. In short, the external disorder only foreshadows internal discomfort. Of course, when houses of this class are intrusted to efficient hands, under the management of an honest builder, the case is very different; but judging from the average condition of what are called second-class dwelling-houses, I believe that I have drawn no exaggerated picture of their state.
The shop-fronts of London indicate a still greater disregard of the first principles of construction. In former days, when the British tradesman's place of business and residence were under the same roof, a modest display of goods was deemed sufficient for the ground-floor, and nowise interfered with the stability of the superstructure; but at the present time, when each draper and silversmith wants to make a greater show than his neighbour, all semblance of strength is banished from the street level. Everything is given up to plate glass. Now plate glass is an excellent material in its way, but we cannot expect it to support three or four stories of solid brickwork. To meet this requirement, therefore, iron columns and iron girders are introduced, and, as artistic effect must yield to the stern necessities of commercial life, it would be idle to urge any but practical objections to the system. Such objections, however, are not wanting. The nature and properties of iron, although well studied by scientific engineers, are but imperfectly understood by the public. In addition to the chance of a flaw in the casting, or any of those more obvious contingencies to which stone and wood are also subject, one fact stands pre-eminently forward. Every schoolboy knows that iron expands with heat and contracts with cold. Let us suppose any large mansion in Belgravia or a West-end draper's establishment attacked by fire; iron has been profusely introduced in its construction, and is affected in the ordinary way; the engines arrive and distribute water over the premises. Can any one doubt what the result would be ? The ironwork thus suddenly cooled must, of necessity, be liable to fracture; and if the whole building tumbles to the ground, it need be no matter of surprise to those who are acquainted with the secret of its structure.