By Robert Stek
Here dwell together still two men of note
Who never lived and so can never die:
How very near they seem, yet how remote
That age before the world went all awry.
Last year IKEA ran an ad campaign duplicating the living rooms from The Simpsons, Friends, and Stranger Things. It was a clever way to showcase their enormous catalog of furnishings. Staterooms on the Titanic have been duplicated, and hobbit homes from the film set of Lord of the Rings can be explored in New Zealand. In Denmark, at the Land of Legends, families can spend a week each summer living in an Iron Age village, or in a carefully reconstructed farm cottage. Re-creating a physical setting is a common way to honor those characters, real or imagined, we hold dear.
As a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed detective, Sherlock Holmes, I have sometimes fantasized climbing the seventeen stairs to the sitting room at 221b Baker Street in Victorian London. As I enter, Dr. Watson removes a decanter of brandy from the tantalus on the sideboard and pours me a drink, adding a splash of soda water from a handsome gasogene before inviting me to take a chair by the fireplace. I can see the ‘VR’ on the pockmarked wall created by a bored Holmes with his revolver. In the corner is the wax bust he used to deceive Colonel Sebastian Moran (“the second most dangerous man in London”) and nearby, a violin left carelessly close to Holmes’ glassware and chemicals on a lab table.
There are quite a few re-creations of Holmes’ living quarters around the world, perhaps even a surprising number for a man “who never lived and so can never die.” You may have even visited the popular tourist destination on Baker Street in London where the entire building of 221b has been transported back some 125 years. You can sit in that chair by the fireplace where, pipe in hand and deerstalker on your head, a friend snaps a picture of you emulating the world’s first consulting detective. A visitor to the Sherlock Holmes Public House near Trafalgar Square will find another sitting room circa 1887, behind a glass wall – look but don’t touch! Holmes’s sitting rooms can also be found in Switzerland: one in Meiringen near the Reichenbach Falls where Holmes and Professor Moriarty came to blows, and the other in Lucens, featuring Doyle family articles and papers belonging to Arthur Conan Doyle’s son, Adrian. There are more sitting room recreations in France and in Denmark as well.
As one might expect, the best and finest re-creations are to be found among his most ardent fans, especially those from the invitation-only literary organization named the Baker Street Irregulars, which has over 300 members worldwide. Associated with the Irregulars are hundreds more “scions,” local societies whose members meet on a regular basis to celebrate the great detective and his friend and companion, John H. Watson, M.D. One of those societies is the Baker Street Builders, a group of Sherlockians interested in gathering the research necessary to study and create the Baker Street townhouse and sitting room.
For years, Californian Chuck Kovacic has collected antiques and Victorian artifacts described or mentioned in the 60 canonical Holmes stories. Going beyond the specific items like a tantalus or gasogene or dark lantern mentioned frequently in the texts, he researched the type of furniture likely to be found in a bachelor’s lodgings, the pattern of wallpaper and styles of rugs of the era, the type and model of microscope Holmes would have used, the cut of Holmes’ bespoke suits — a wardrobe beyond the classic Inverness cape and deerstalker cap. Studying the details of London life in the late Victorian era, he created “the only full-scale sitting room recreation west of the Mississippi.”
A total of 26 members of the Baker Street Builders now have certificates attesting to their skills in re-creating an historically accurate reproduction of the sitting room of Holmes and Watson at 221b Baker Street.
On the East Coast, in a typical middle-class home in Reading, Pennsylvanias, Dennis Dobry has assembled arguably the most comprehensive re-creation of the 221b sitting room in the world. Though constructed in the basement, Holmes’ flat nonetheless “overlooks” a busy London lane, as described by Watson in A Study in Scarlet. And in the background, one hears the sound of a hansom cab driving past on the cobblestoned street. You can peer through the windows to see a façade of the other buildings on Baker Street that Dobry has painted on a solid back wall. The illusion is quite striking. But the real excitement is the incredible amount of detail Dobry has reproduced.
You see every single item ever mentioned in the Canon, plus at least two or more artifacts from each of the 60 Holmes stories, including Charles Augustus Milverton’s “little black book,” with very private photographs of upper-class Victorian ladies with details of their lives suitable for blackmailing, and a specimen of a Lion’s Mane jellyfish in a glass jar! There are, of course, the photographs mentioned in the stories, of General Gordon, Henry Ward Beecher, and Her Royal Majesty, Queen Victoria, as well as a small plaster bust of Napoleon. In addition, there are literally hundreds of items not mentioned explicitly in the stories, but that obviously had to be there as well: rent checks signed by Holmes or Watson made out to Mrs. Hudson, receipts from local shops, telegram blanks, Watson’s Army foot locker, and a framed copy of his commission in the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers.
In 1996, inspired by fellow Sherlockian Paul Churchill’s sitting room re-creation, Dobry began collecting (and manufacturing) Holmesian artifacts. The East Coast was a good area to search for Victorian furniture and ephemera, and eBay proved a convenient way to search for special items. Once he’d assembled these, he began construction of the room’s walls, floor and ceiling and the recreation was complete in 1999. For those items which were not explicitly mentioned in a story, Dobry developed amateur counterfeiting and forgery skills. While a period receipt book might be obtained, it was hardly likely to contain receipts from Mrs. Hudson, so Dobry manufactured one.
Members of various scions local to Pennsylvania, and of course of Dobry’s own, the White Rose Irregulars of York, have had the pleasure of visiting over the years. His yearly open house is an opportunity for other Sherlockians to marvel at the planning and effort that went into what is arguably the most complete re-creation of the sitting room of the world’s first consulting detective. (You may contact Denny Dobry directly at [email protected] to attend a meeting of the White Rose Irregulars, and to be notified of his next open house. It will be worth the trip, no matter how far you must travel.)
What kind of person devotes much of their spare time (and disposable income) to re-create an entire Victorian sitting room? Occupation does not seem to be a clue. Of the three Holmes aficionados, one is an artist, one is an engineer and the other a high school Latin teacher.
The Latin root of the word, amateur, is “love,” and certainly love of Sherlock Holmes is the motivation for these builders. Others show this love by spending countless hours analyzing and writing about the mystery stories. “Never has so much been written by so many for so few,” Sherlockian Christopher Morley, founder and a longtime contributing editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, once quipped about the BSI quarterly publication, the Baker Street Journal. Some Holmes fans wear Victorian clothing to fan conventions. Others invent “steam-punk” contraptions never dreamt of by Doyle. But the Baker Street Builders want authenticity, actual century-plus old relics that Holmes just might have had in his possession (had he actually lived!). If they can’t find the original, they will come up with an astonishingly accurate substitute.
Most Holmes aficionados have a deerstalker, a pipe, a magnifying lens or some other items associated with him (like Holmes, I have a Persian slipper, the toe of which is stuffed with tobacco). But the Builders I’ve described above are not content with a memento or two. They desire a full immersion into “that age before the world went all awry,” a personal time machine that allows them to visit Holmes and Watson, as they contemplate “a three-pipe problem.”
I count myself amongst the most ardent Holmes followers. The sitting room at 221b Baker Street is the central point around which the stories and mythology of Holmes revolve and represents an age where intellect and integrity were highly valued. It’s also an homage to a marvelous male friendship, an embodiment of Sherlock and Watson, where, as Vincent Starrett notes:
A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane
As night descends upon this fabled street:
A lonely hansom splashes through the rain,
The ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet.
Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
And it is always eighteen ninety-five.
Robert Stek initially studied engineering but obtained his PhD in psychology, working in private practice as well as government service. After retirement, he became a research associate at the University of Arizona studying consciousness and parapsychology. In 1996 he was given the investiture, “the mysterious scientist” by the Baker Street Irregulars.