Dennis Severs House in London transports visitors back to the 1700s

Dennis Severs House in London transports visitors back to the 1700s (Bill Hageman/Tribune Photo)

LONDON — Not long after Buckingham Palace was built in the early 18th century, a much less imposing structure went up in the Spitalfields area of London.

It was a 10-room brick-terraced house, built in 1724, with nothing to make it stand out from others along Folgate Street.

Over the years, the house's fortunes — and that of Spitalfields — declined. Then in 1979, American artist Dennis Severs bought it and turned it into — well, what it is is in the eye of the beholder. Partly a work of art, perhaps a bit of theater, a living-history exhibit maybe. But Dennis Severs' House is not a museum; it's frozen moments in time from long ago.

Severs created a family of silk weavers, the Jervis family, and turned each room into a look at their lives over several generations. Visitors take a self-guided tour (in hushed tones, please, and do not touch anything) and see what each room would have looked like at a moment in time.

It is not what a museum curator would typically display. Beds are unmade, plaster is falling from the ceiling, furniture is worn, nightclothes are strung on rope along the back stairs. It seems that members of the Jervis family have just stepped away. Unfinished meals and half-empty wine glasses are on one table, spilled sugar cubes are on another, earrings sit on another, right where Mrs. Jervis left them.

You'll hear muffled voices in the next room, but when you investigate, the Jervises will have just left. Songbirds warble. The rooms are lit by fires or candles (If you go, choose a sunny day.)

Everywhere are tiny details that, pieced together, take you back.

The house gets 10,000 to 15,000 visitors a year, says house manager Mick Pedroli.

"We can't handle any more than that. It's a very fragile building."

He doesn't advertise — go to dennissevershouse.co.uk for tour details — and relies on word of mouth.

"You can be a visitor in any museum and look at things," said Pedroli, who was a friend of the late Severs. "But this is life in London in the 18th and 19th centuries."