In 1925 one of the richest women in the world, Dorothy Whitney Elmhirst, came to the UK from New York City with her English husband, Leonard, and settled on a sleepy estate in South Devon with a ruined medieval house at its heart. They came to experiment: he with agriculture and she to build a social, cultural and educational project that would challenge the way communities are built and sustained. The Dartington Hall Estate that they built over the next 45 years operates still as one of the most forward-thinking, interesting places in the world.
After the Elmhirsts renovated Dartington Hall itself as a family home, their minds turned to the community around them. In the 1920s it was a typical agricultural community with low levels of education, poor housing and health, and zero access to culture. Dorothy had a passionate belief that, however deprived of opportunity, every one of us has what she termed a “many-sided life”, and that in order to achieve our full potential there are certain basics we all need: a secure, affordable home, a good (lifelong) education, a stable, fairly-paid job, access to decent culture and – inspired by William Morris and John Ruskin – the right to be surrounded by beauty. This all sounds a bit familiar, right? We could be talking about today.
So Dorothy set about creating the kind of community that would deliver all of these things. She built homes, opened schools, started businesses, founded a college of arts and brought the finest culture available to South Devon. In the 1930s she opened her doors to Jewish émigrés fleeing Germany and Austria particularly – Walter Gropius arrived on his way to Harvard when the Bauhaus closed – and also converted a fifteenth-century barn to a working theatre, still in operation today as a cinema.
Through that decade the Elmhirsts built nearly a million square feet of property, working with some of the most progressive architects in the world. High Cross House, built in 1931 as a home for the American headmaster of the schools by the Swiss-American architect William Lescaze, is widely believed to be among the best early modernist houses in Britain. The Arts Council was originally conceived at Dartington; the BBC Documentary Film Unit began life there; the Soil Association was founded there, and in the years after the Elmhirsts died, the Open University started its life on the estate.
The Elmhirsts built nearly a million square feet of property, working with some of the most progressive architects in the world”
What Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst were doing was extraordinary placemaking development. In 2016 I had the privilege of making a small contribution to the project when I went to work there as the estate’s development director. Sadly the modern economy has not been kind to Dartington and in recent years, the cost of upkeep has become unviable. Covid-19 won’t have helped, but the future of the estate is currently being reimagined by a passionate and committed team.
What is clear is that the place the Elmhirsts created was conceived and driven by a singular purpose – a view on how life should be – and a clear understanding of what needed to happen to make it a reality. The Dartington Experiment was made possible by the almost bottomless purse of a very rich couple who, in the days before sophisticated planning, built pretty much what they wanted. The result was an incredibly rich place with some of the finest architecture in the country and a legacy that is unrivalled. Even if the estate does not survive in its current form, the lessons learned from a century of experimentation are huge. It’s a magical place and a must-see if you have even the most passing interest in how to create wonderful, inspiring, sustainable communities.