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Sleuth fans hope to save Conan Doyle’s house

Writer resurrected Sherlock Holmes in the house he built for his wife
/ Source: The Associated Press

When Arthur Conan Doyle was told in 1893 that his consumptive wife had only months to live, he absorbed the diagnosis — then went home and built her a house.

Undershaw, an imposing red-brick edifice in a dry and sheltering valley near Hindhead, south of London, is credited with helping Louise Conan Doyle, known as Touie, to live an extra 13 years.

Today, Undershaw's windows are boarded, its ceilings discolored by mildew, the author's beloved tennis court swamped by a meadow of long, waving grasses. And the house's future is uncertain: A developer who bought the site in 2004 is determined to build on it.

Des Moore had initially planned to divide the house into apartments, but the local council refused its permission in May after complaints from conservationists and Conan Doyle fans. He later withdrew an application to subdivide the site into separate building lots.

The Victorian Society is leading the campaign to save the house. It has urgently asked the conservation group English Heritage to move the house higher up the list of important historical buildings, making it harder to alter the building. But that could take several months.

Meanwhile, Moore's agent, John Westwood, said the developer won't cave in to pressure from Conan Doyle fans.

"If he could gain permission to develop the rest of the site and make a profit, he could renovate Undershaw and hand it over to one of the conservation bodies," Westwood said.

Conan Doyle bought the 3-acre plot at Hindhead in 1895; his friend, architect Joseph Henry Ball, designed the house.

"It's not an architectural masterpiece, but it is an attractive house," said Kathryn Ferry, an architectural adviser at the Victorian Society. "It's an interesting piece of late 19th century local vernacular and it's very personalized."

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Two stained glass windows display the crests of Conan Doyle's ancestors, their bright colors now faded. All the doors are hinged both ways, because the energetic writer did not like wasting time turning door handles. The initials ACD are engraved in woodwork and on garden gates.

Bram Stoker, author of "Dracula" and a friend of Conan Doyle who visited him at Undershaw, recalled: "It is so sheltered from cold winds that the architect felt justified in having lots of windows, so that the whole place is full of light."

During his decade at Undershaw, Conan Doyle resurrected Sherlock Holmes in "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and "The Return of Sherlock Holmes." The famous sleuth in the deerstalker hat had apparently been killed off in the 1893 short story "The Final Problem."

Conan Doyle, a doctor by training, was also knighted and ran unsuccessfully for Parliament as a Liberal Unionist in the 1906 national election. And it was from Undershaw that Conan Doyle launched his campaign to clear Birmingham lawyer George Edalji on charges of mutilating livestock.

Among those who hate the idea of carving up the house is author Julian Barnes, whose Booker Prize-winning novel, "Arthur and George," recounted the Edalji story.

"This is more than just a writer's house evoking memories of literary activity," Barnes wrote in The Guardian newspaper. "Doyle was an energetic and practical Edwardian gentleman and, if less than co-designer of Undershaw, could certainly be classed as a creatively interfering client."

Undershaw, which has been extended to encompass 36 rooms, was a hotel and restaurant from 1924 until 2004, when Moore bought it in a dilapidated state for $1.8 million. It has been empty ever since.