Human Stories Associated with Buildings

Human Stories Associated with Buildings

Our Head of Heritage and an experienced conservation architect, Helen Walker considers the importance of unlocking the human stories that contribute to the significance of a heritage building in her latest blog.


I was recently on a site visit looking around a Grade II* listed building with a colleague (who does not usually work with historic buildings). Our conversation inevitably turned to “why are we keeping this?” and “what is so special about that”. It was a fascinating discussion that made me think about why these attributes of the building are so important.

In my role, I love to read the story of the building, how it evolved and how it has been over time. 

A cornice detail can show the hierarchy of the rooms within a building and the function of lath and plaster was to allow the external walls to breathe. 

Once an element is lost from a historic building, it is lost forever! We have a duty as the custodians of historic buildings to protect these assets and their stories for generations to come…  

I explained this to my colleague but I could see he was not convinced!

It wasn’t until I explained that I read buildings like other people read books that we reached an understanding. When we read a book, we visualise the characters of that book. When we read building, we visualise the people who have not designed and constructed it. 

A building tells us the story of the stone mason who carved his initials into the stone so that he could get paid for the work he had done. It tells us of the pride with which the joiner creates chamfers on timber structures within roof voids, which are never seen.  These craftspeople may not have been famous architects or important building owners, however, we remember and appreciate the skill of their workmanship that contributed to the quality of the building. 

Many historic buildings have been adapted and repurposed throughout their lives and have exciting stories about the successive generations of people who lived, worked and visited them.

Here are some of my favourite stories of the listed building projects we have worked on:

  • Bootham Park, York – Built in 1772 as a lunatic asylum, we found a piece of historic graffiti etched into a pane of glass with a resident’s name and the date of 1899.
  • Beverley Arms, East Yorkshire – This Georgian Coaching Inn had its most infamous visitor in 1753, the highway robber Dick Turpin, who stayed at the Beverley Arms Hotel before appearing in front of the town magistrates.
  • Judge’s Lodging Hotel, York – Built as a private residence in 1710, the building was bought as the judges’ residence in 1806 for when they attended the sessions at the Assize Courts at York Castle held for the most serious crimes in the country.
  • Grantley Hall Hotel and Wellness Retreat, Ripon – Built at the end of the 17th century as country house, with the outbreak of World War II, the Grantley Estate to the war effort and it opened as a convalescent home caring for American, Jamaican and Canadian airmen and soldiers. 6,571 patients were cared for under its roof during World War II. The Dining room was used for meals and entertainment including a visit by Dame Vera Lynn. 

I was once laughed at during a seminar for saying that buildings have souls but to me they do, they contain a small part of all the people who contributed to bringing the building to life.

So when I am asked what I see when I look at a heritage asset, my answer is that I see the human story behind the façade, not just bricks and mortar. I feel proud to be keeping the stories alive for others to appreciate and for the next generation.

Historic buildings tell the untold stories of the everyday men and women whose lives were intertwined with the legacy of the buildings.

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