Christopher Wren crosses the Atlantic

Christopher Wren crosses the Atlantic

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As part of the London Festival of Architecture, Jen Pedler will be running her new walk Once There Was a Church  which recounts the stories of how the remnants City of London churches connect the past to the present.

You can join Jen’s walk on the 7th and 18th June (booking details are here), but as little taster she tells the fascinating story of the posthumous Atlantic crossing of one of our most celebrated architects.

Today only the footprint of the little church of St Mary Aldermanbury, just behind Guildhall in the City, remains. It was destroyed twice in the two Great Fires of London. After the 1666 fire it was rebuilt by Christopher Wren and after the second, during the Blitz of 1940, it was rebuilt again – but not in London.

What became known as the ‘Second Great Fire of London’ was the firestorm caused the incendiary bombs dropped by the German Luftwaffe in almost 12 hours of continuous bombing during the night of 29/30th December 1940. Firefighting efforts were hampered by a lack of water; there was an exceptionally low tide making it difficult to obtain water from the river and the bombs fractured water mains, reducing the pressure. There was often little the firemen could do but watch the City burn.

Winston Churchill issued a message: “St Paul’s must be saved at all costs.” And it was.

One of the most iconic images of the war is Herbert Mason’s photograph of the dome of the Cathedral standing amid the smoke of the burning City. Wren’s masterpiece survived but much of the area around it was flattened and 13 other of his churches were destroyed that night.

An auxiliary fireman who watched some of these churches burn, including St Mary Aldermanbury, described hearing their bells falling down the towers and “hearing the organs burn, because the hot air blowing through the organ pipes almost sounded as if the poor old organs were shrieking in agony in their destruction.”

No doubt this fireman shared their pain as he was organ builder Noel Mander; some of the organs he heard in their death throes were his own. He is most noted for rebuilding the organ in St Paul’s in the 1970s but in the immediate post-war period he worked on the restoration of organs in churches that were to be rebuilt, often using salvaged parts from organs in churches that were slated for demolition.

One church on the demolition list was St Mary Aldermanbury. But, once again, Winston Churchill saved the day.

On a visit to the USA in 1946 he had been invited to visit Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri where he gave an address – ‘Sinews of Peace’ – in which he famously introduced the phrase ‘iron curtain’ which came to define the Cold War era. In the 1960s the director of the college, inspired by an article in LIFE magazine about war damaged, soon to be demolished Wren churches, suggested that one could be imported and rebuilt in Fulton to serve as a Churchill memorial and also the college chapel.

So St Mary Aldermanbury was dismantled and reconstructed in what the Times newspaper referred to as “Perhaps the biggest jigsaw puzzle in the history of architecture.” It now stands at the college in all its original Wren glory with the National Churchill Museum beneath it.

None of the interior had survived the bombing but it has been recreated much as it would have been originally. Of course, it needed an organ and who better to build it than Noel Mander who had watched the church burn back in the Blitz; just one of the many fascinating connections in this story of Christopher Wren crossing the Atlantic.

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