London's House of Spirits

Sunday, June 26, 2005

I step through a low door into a warm, cozy kitchen. On the rustic pine table, there's a steaming cup of tea and a half-sliced loaf of brown bread. Dirty blue-and-white china dishes are in the sink and a fire burns brightly on the hearth. It's as if someone has just left the room--someone from the early 18th century.

I stand silently, listening to the clock tick. Then I hear the sound of a carriage approaching and disappearing down the street outside. "I see dead people," the famous line from the movie "The Sixth Sense," comes to mind.

Which is just what Dennis Severs, the (late) owner of the house, intended: for us to see ghosts. Or perhaps to become a ghost in his house. The Dennis Severs' House in London's East End doesn't call itself a museum. In fact, the trustees--who include two of Severs's close friends and his god-daughter--hate the term. For them, it implies glass boxes filled with information that tells the visitor what to look at and its significance. The Dennis Severs' House is intended to let visitors experience a living, breathing 18th-century home, where candles are still burned for light and tea is heated over an open fire.

If it sounds bizarre, it is. Each room is one of a series of still-life dramas. Severs sets the scene--the home of the fictional Jervises, a family of weavers--and the visitor creates the action. You look at furniture, portraits and handwritten lists, smell food cooking and coal burning in the stove, hear doors close and bells ring, then use that information to piece together what's happening. Artist David Hockney has described the house as one of the world's five greatest experiences.

That experience starts even before you enter: Gas lights flicker in the lamps outside the ivy-strewn Georgian town house, one of four on this cobblestone street. And although busy Liverpool Street Station is just moments away, silence surrounds the house.

You ring the bell and a guide explains that the ground-floor rooms embody the early 18th century--but that as you climb the stairs, you will move through history. On the third floor are sumptuous drawing rooms of the late 1700s. By the time you reach the fifth and final level, the rooms reflect the gritty underbelly of the Victorian era.

Understanding the house means understanding Dennis Severs. An eccentric Californian fascinated by English history, Severs moved to London in the 1970s. Soon after, he bought, for the bargain price of 20,000 pounds, a decrepit Georgian house.

Back then, the area around Spitalfields Market was gritty and dangerous. But Severs, along with a visionary set of artists and media types, saw its potential. Dubbed the "New Georgians," they moved in, sometimes squatting in derelict buildings to stake a claim. Their goal: to renew the neighborhood and preserve its character.

Unlike others, Severs made no effort to modernize his home. Instead, with minimal scholarly research, he restored it to the way he imagined the Jervises might have lived. There's no electricity and no indoor plumbing. For the 30 years Severs lived in this house, he used antique chamber pots and encouraged guests to do the same. He earned his living by opening the house to visitors for self-guided tours once a week and giving "performances"--a 2 1/2 -hour guided tour of the house--several evenings a week.

As you enter, you're advised not to take anything too seriously. But for the house to reveal itself, you must be willing to play the game. You must actively suspend disbelief, forgetting that the sounds of the passing carriage comes from a crudely hidden cassette tape. You must not look for explanations. Instead, you must consciously use your senses to soak up the atmosphere and use your imagination to fill in the gaps.

The house is not without humor, however. As I climbed the stairs to the second floor, I accidentally bumped into someone: "Oh, sorry," I said before realizing I was apologizing to a three-cornered hat, hung carelessly on the banister. Attached to it was a long braid of human hair, a fashionable style of the 1740s.

Upstairs, in the elegant drawing room, a paper speech bubble had been glued to an oil painting of an 18th-century woman saying "Shhhhh." And when I peeked around the screen in the master bedroom, where Severs slept, I found his baseball jacket hanging on a chair. His red flannel bathrobe hangs next to the bed, where he left it before he died.

Indeed, it's the ghost of Severs that is most present in the house. Though he died of cancer in 2001 at age 51, his spirit remains. He prods you to open your eyes and laughs at your inability to truly see. In his bedroom on a side table is one of his many notes to visitors: "The 20th century is a fascinating place to visit, but surely nobody would ever want to live in it."

Stepping back into the din of London traffic, I can begin to see why Severs was keen to distance himself from modern society. A world of ghosts, especially friendly ones like the Jervis family, is a wonderful antidote to the pressures and pace of contemporary life. Living in the past is not for everyone. But as Severs was fond of saying, "You either see it or you don't."

--Jane Black

The Dennis Severs' House (18 Folgate St., London, 011-44-207-247-4013,http://www.dennissevershouse.co.uk; Tube: Liverpool Street) is open Monday evenings except holidays for self-guided candlelight tours. Times vary with the seasons. Admission is $22.50. Reservations required. It is also open on the first and third Sunday of each month between 2 and 5 p.m. for $15 and on the following Monday between noon and 2 p.m. for $9.30. Reservations are not required, and small children are not admitted.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company