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Restoration: A British Temple Restored

Project: St George's Church, Bloomsbury, London, UK

Architect: Molyneux Kerr Architects, London, UK; Colin Kerr, architect in charge

By Martha McDonald

Designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736) and consecrated in 1730, St George's Church in Bloomsbury, London, has a long architectural history that includes many twists and turns. The most recent is a five-year restoration that was completed in 2006. Inspired by the World Monuments Fund (WMF), the $15.6-million project brought the ailing structure back to life to serve the community for at least another century or two.

The historic church was built between 1716 and 1730 as a result of Queen Anne's New Churches Act of 1711, which called for "Fifty new churches … of stone and other proper materials, with Towers or Steeples to each of them." Hawksmoor, a protégé of Sir Christopher Wren and a master of the English Baroque style, designed six of the 12 that were eventually built, with St George's being his last. Considered his masterpiece, it is an eclectic building with a large Corinthian portico that was thought to be inspired by the temple of Bacchus in Baalbek, Lebanon, and a stepped pyramidal steeple inspired by the Tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus, an ancient Greek city in present-day Turkey.

The rectangular limestone building (130x90 ft. with a 42-ft. ceiling) featured a symmetrical interior with the apse and altar on the eastern wall, as dictated by the church at the time. Hawksmoor was able to incorporate this east-west orientation in spite of the rectangular north-south site. Two galleries along the north and south walls faced each other and provided open, clear views of the altar and massive reredos in the apse, and clerestory windows provided ample daylight.

The 150-ft.-tall tower with enormous unicorns and lions on the corners and a statue of George I on the top was built during the later years of construction. The church itself is located between the British Museum, which opened a generation later in 1759, and Covent Garden.

"There are six Hawksmoor churches in London. This was his last and, in many ways, it brings to fruition his theories about church architecture," says Colin Kerr, architect in charge with Molyneux Kerr Architects, the London firm that led the restoration. "Hawksmoor was fascinated throughout his life with the descriptions of the temple and the ancient world. The building is a great assembly of all of these different ideas, drawing on Classical forms, yet bringing it into current church requirements. The plan is based on a square, and the triangle, another ancient symbol of Masonry, is embedded in the design. The goal was to proclaim the church's ancient roots and to show that Anglicanism was part of that."

After it was completed, St George's, Bloomsbury, underwent a number of alterations. A west gallery was added early on and additional pews were added to increase the seating to almost 1,000. In 1781, the interior was re-oriented on a north-south axis and the north gallery was removed so the reredos and altar could be moved to this wall. The south portico became the main entrance and a number of windows were blocked.

The last major restoration occurred in 1871 under the direction of George Edmund Street. He kept the north-south orientation and updated the church to Victorian tastes. At this time, the massive unicorns and lions on the steeple were deemed frivolous and potentially unsafe and were removed. At various times, the interior was repainted in various colors, moving away from Hawksmoor's original stone coloring.

The church continued to evolve and change, especially the interior, and it also found its place in British history. Charles Dickens' "A Bloomsbury Christening" in Sketches by Boz featured St George's and it looms in the background of William Hogarth's 1751 engraving "Gin Lane" as a symbol of hope for a society degraded by the abuse of spirits. In recent history, the building deteriorated as the congregation dwindled and the neighborhood declined.

When the WMF put the building on its Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites in 2002, a donation of $8.6 million was made by the Paul Mellon Estate and additional support came from the Heritage Lottery Fund. "Once we placed St George's Bloomsbury on the 2002 Watch List, we recognized the magnitude of the challenges that the small parish was facing in their efforts to preserve this huge and important building," says Bonnie Burnham, president of the WMF. "They needed help in determining how to approach the restoration as well as assistance in marshalling the funds necessary to carry it out."

"St George's stands in the shadow of the British Museum, so it was ignored," says Dr. Jonathan Foyle, chief executive of the World Monuments Fund Britain. "The stone was virtually falling off and people were sleeping under the portico. It brought to mind Hogarth's 'Gin Lane,' which depicts social degradation. The building itself was something of a shambles. The Victorians re-oriented the church, colored the ceilings blue and put the altar in the wrong end of the church. They tried to turn Hawksmoor's Classical temple into a church with a medieval palate."

The WMF worked with a number of local partners, including the Diocesan Advisory Committee, English Heritage, the Georgian Group and the Camden Borough Council planning authorities, and conducted extensive research to determine the original design of the church. The client for the project, the church, also played a vital role, under the direction of the rector, Reverend Dr. Perry Butler.

A plan was launched in 2003 and a number of contractors worked on the project. The main contractor was the special projects division of Wallis, part of the Kier Group plc of Kent, UK. Management services were provided by London-based Gardiner & Theobald, the structural engineer was London-based Sinclair Johnston & Partners and the mechanical and electrical engineer was Gifford Ltd., also of London.

With the goal of returning St George's to its original temple-like appearance and condition, the interior was changed back to its east-west orientation and most of the surfaces were restored. The final step, the rebuilding of the north gallery by Peter Inskip & Peter Jenkins Architects of London, is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

One of the major problems was that water had been seeping into the building for many years, partly because Hawksmoor had originally put rainwater pipes inside the walls. "These had been removed in 1880," says Kerr, "but water still found the location and moved into the building. The entire interior was deteriorated because of water damage."

Layers and layers of paint on the interior walls were carefully studied and removed by St Blaise Ltd., of Dorchester, UK, so the original stone color could be restored. "By the time we got to it, the church was painted in pink, gold, red and blue and it was flaking and falling away," says Kerr. "Those paints are completely incompatible with the church and had to be removed." Hawksmoor had originally painted the interior a Portland stone color. "That's what was done then," says Kerr, "so we restored it back to that concept." The apse, a plaster vault decorated with cherubs and symbols of the Resurrection, was restored by Tankerdale Ltd., of Petersfield, UK. "The restoration was massively complex, and the work had to be done in a tight time frame," says Kerr. "The donation from the Mellon Fund specified that the money had to be used within two years, so this restoration was done very quickly, compared to others. Another Hawksmoor building for example, Christ Church, Spitalfields, took 30 years to restore."

The undercroft was also restored and converted into space for offices and educational purposes. There's also a Hawksmoor exhibition in the undercroft. This area was originally meant for this type of use, but during the 1800s the parish started using it as a crypt. "We removed and re-interred 850 bodies," Kerr explains. The undercroft restoration work was also conduced by St Blaise Ltd. In addition, an elevator was installed for access from the ground to the church level for the disabled.

Heating and lighting were also significant issues. "We eventually took a pragmatic approach to lighting," says Kerr. Originally services were held during the day and most of the lighting came from the clerestory windows, but more lighting was needed. A large central 6-ft. dimmable circular fixture was installed into an existing opening. It incorporates 16 down-lights that reflect off of the stone around the building, mimicking what the clerestory lights do during the day.

Heating also required unusual solutions. "We solved this problem by using under-floor heating, and the boilers are hidden in the tower," says Kerr. "There are no ugly pipes to be seen inside the building."

The exterior required extensive stone repair and cleaning and the reinstatement of the stone steps leading to the south tower. "The cleaning of the exterior has transformed the church," Foyle adds. He points out that the city had been heated with coal for many years, so the building was filthy. "When Felix Mendelssohn came to London in the 1830s, he said the skies looked like black ink. David Ball Restoration [of London] did the cleaning, using a very light touch to protect the stone."

One of the highlights of the restoration was the re-creation and installation of the heraldic beasts – two lions and two unicorns – that had been removed during the Victorian era. Found in the British monarch's coat of arms, the lion represents England and the unicorn represents Scotland. These new figures were carved and installed by Bottisham, UK-based Fairhaven of Anglesey Abbey under the direction of sculptor Tim Crawley, who had done work at Westminster Abbey. He found guidelines for the figures in historic prints. Each creature weighs eight tons and is 10 ft. 3 in. tall and each unicorn has a one-meter (3.28 ft.) gilded horn made of beaten copper. Located 110 ft. above the ground, they are now once again part of the London skyline.

"These are not freestanding sculptures," says Kerr of the lions and unicorns. "They are actually part of the building. Moving 1½ tons [the weight of each individual piece of carved stone] of stone around is very difficult. We needed very stable scaffolding up there and we put in an electrical hoist to bring stone up to main platform. But, once you got the stone into the approximate position, you had to lift them into the precise location and then slide them in. The electrical hoist was useless because it jerked. So, we used a time-honored method for sliding the stone into position – a Lewis pin, with a pulley and long length of chain, and human strength. It was essentially done by hand."

The two-story vestry building behind the church was also restored and can now be used by the community. "One of our goals was to create ways for the parish to earn funds for the continuous upkeep of the building," says Kerr. "The vestry building and the undercroft offer opportunities for income. In addition, the church itself, now outfitted to seat 200 with benches that can be rearranged, is used for music and concerts as well."

"This the most significant and expensive project the WMF has taken on," says Foyle. "It's a classic project for us, where the WMF steps in to make it happen."

"Restoring a building like this is immensely complex," says Kerr. "You have to get into Hawksmoor's head and understand where he was coming from. This holds you to the project. Otherwise you can be pushed and pulled by other points of view. There is a large cast of characters and you are trying to meet timetables and a budget and keep things going forward. The architect's job is like trying to conduct a huge orchestra that doesn't yet know the tempo." TB

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