York’s Georgian gem that’s full of surprises

Only one original feature remains in the ornamental salon of the splendid Georgian townhouse in the shadow of Clifford’s Tower – and it’s not real.

Fairfax House in York
Fairfax House in York

The doorway at the far end of the room opens on to a stone wall, which if removed, would send unwary visitors plunging down the grand staircase. It was put there by the architect to give the room a sense of symmetry.

But although it remains locked, it has opened several other doors on the building’s history – little of which was as its curators had thought.

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Fairfax House, occupying an enviable position on Castlegate, is an 18th century treasure, modelled in the Palladian style by its second owner, Viscount Fairfax, and John Carr, the architect responsible for Harewood House.

Fairfax House in York

But as well as a gentleman’s residence it has been in its time a building society, a club and a cinema before being bought and restored by York Civic Trust.

Its reopening for intimate guided tours of areas not previously accessible to visitors has revealed a few other surprising twists and turns along the way – not the least of which is that the presumed authentic Georgian building that abuts the property is only just celebrating its centenary.

“It looks Georgian and it was always thought to be part of the house, but it transpires that the cinema company put it there in an early example of heritage conservation,” said Thomas Jacobs, the property officer at Fairfax House. “They completely demolished a perfectly good Georgian house next door, then rebuilt an imitation Georgian house with the same proportions and stuck a little cinema facade into the front to make it look original.”

It was in 1920 that the building, renamed the St George’s Hall cinema, opened its reproduction doors to the cream of York society. “It was the Ritziest place in the city, with a dance hall and dining room. You could see a movie, go for a dance and get something to eat,” Mr Jacobs said. “But it completely changed in the 1930s. Pleasure palaces quickly fell on hard times and it had to eke out a living as a second rate cinema.”

The dance hall, with its L-shaped sprung floor, had weathered badly under the weight of a thousand feet a night, and the resulting damage to the magnificent stucco ceilings on the floor below has just been repaired during the building’s enforced closure.

Even then, it was not as it had seemed, with craftspeople casting doubt on its provenance as the work of the Swiss-Italian stuccoist Giuseppe Cortese, who worked in the North of England in the mid-18th century.

“It’s a lesson not to take things at first sight when you go around these stately houses because they’re all doing something similar – they’re all creating a narrative to sell to the public,” Mr Jacobs said.

The ongoing conservation work at Fairfax House means visitors in small groups can get unusually close to rooms that have not yet been restored.

The house is home to the furniture collection of the York chocolate heir Noel Terry, but other less familiar pieces are now viewable in the “undressed” rooms.

The venue attracts 24,000 visitors in a normal year but for the new tours guests are being allowed in only in groups of six at a time.

Tickets are bookable at www.fairfax-house.arttickets.org.uk.

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