Famous for its 18th-century almshouse buildings, the Geffrye Museum is currently being gutted and turned into something rather interesting.
The almshouses were built for poor ironmongers following a bequest from Sir Robert Geffrye, a former Lord Mayor of London and Master of the Ironmongers’ Company. In 1914 the occupants moved out, and the Museum of the Home moved in, and pretty much gutted the interior space to turn it into a museum. Later on, the current museum design was created, with a series of rooms each showing off a period of time in home decoration – and where there used to be the 1st floor, this was now a rickety mezzanine space.
Little used though was a basement that ran under the entire block. An — and at times controversial — plan to remake the space is now under way.
In essence, the basement has been lowered by about a metre, and will be opened up as a public display space. The upper floor will be rebuilt decently, and while half will be for staff, the other half will be a library and research centre for the public to use.
The old restaurant space will become the new entrance, with the main access being the “back” of the museum, which faces Hoxton railway station. The restaurant moves sideways into the pub next to the museum, which they wanted to tear down, but a vociferous protest stopped that happening.
The builders and architects are about half-way through the building process at the moment, so it’s a curious hybrid of old building, building site, and in a few places, nearly finished additions.
They’ve struggled a bit to fit the next access into the space available at the back of the museum, due to the need for accessible slopes to be added, but the core structure is in place now.
The aim is to present a much larger arrival space, so that it’s more obvious that a public museum is here, not some private almshouses. A typical visitor would then be encouraged to start a visit in the newly opened basement spaces.
These used to be a series of rooms under the almshouses for each resident’s washing facilities. A curiosity they’ve uncovered during the works is that each house in the row is subtly different — and it seems that different builders worked on each house. That does make the current works a bit harder though, as the walls aren’t all quite the same, the fireplaces are very different in each house, and one even has a huge water boiler.
They also found an old leather shoe down here – more about that later.
Having dug down to create modern heights for the basement space, they’ve also lined the walls with a packing sheet style plastic membrane to allow water that soaks in through the bricks to run down the walls to a drainage under the new floor. A similar method is used in many basement structures these days to keep the inside dry.
In the central space the square spaces are replaced with much more atmospheric arches. This is under the old chapel space, and will be a route into the gardens.
The gardens are looking rather sorry for themselves today, but will be restored again, and will again be laid out in styles from Elizabethan to a new modern-day roof garden being added to the new structure by the main entrance. The gardens weren’t so much overlooked, as rarely looked at all by visitors, so they hope to get more people out into the garden space by making it more obvious that it’s open to go into.
At one end, next to the old herb garden is a new pavilion which will be for educational use. They have lots of school visits, but these used to be plonked in the 1998 extension basement, away from the spaces they had come to visit. So this will be a substantial improvement.
It’s only now that a visitor goes back to the original ground floor and the rooms with heritage furniture. The furniture having been removed, and all the walls and Georgian panelling on the almshouses having been covered up in plywood to protect them.
It’s also here that they will add the new staircase up to the strengthened 1st floor. The new stairs will align with the footprint of an old set of stairs removed a century ago, so there is an element of heritage being replicated. The new 1st floor though is higher up than the old one, to give more space on the ground floor, even if it means the windows on the 1st floor are now just a few inches above the floor.
Although the attic space will be retained in some lengths of the building, the most dramatic change will be the new library space, where they have removed the old ceiling to expose the full height of the building.
One roof beam is littered with old nails which would be lovely to retain as they are an important part of its history, but as it was just a couple of inches above my head, a bit unwise to retain.
The overall effect is of expansion and adding new space into a building that has limited capacity to grow. When finished, the museum’s public space will have roughly doubled, although by making the garden more obvious an attraction, the real impact is probably bigger for the many people who never visited the garden space.
They’ll need some extra space following the rebuild, to house the artefacts they dug up during the works, such as the old ink bottle, the fragments of tiles and old George I chamber pots — and an old leather shoe.
The shoe was found wedged inside an old chimney, and was a good luck charm to ward off evil spirits who might use the chimney to get into the house.
The builders aim to hand over the finished site to the museum this November, and it should re-open to the public around late Spring 2020.
You won’t need a leather shoe to get in when it opens.