ARCHITECTURE

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ST MARY WOOLNOTH


Reviewed by ANDRE BEAUMONT


Those parts of the urban environment rich in the sense of place usually achieve it by a series of fortuitous accidents. Just in front of the Bank of England is one of Britain's most interesting architectural spaces.

No less than nine roadways, small and large, flow into what. is an extended traffic intersection in front of the Mansion House and the Bank of England. In terms of their buildings and the institutions based in them they are much like tributaries of history.

From any one of these roads a different but enticing vista is to be had. The mediaeval street pattern unites the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange, Wren's St. Stephen Walbrook (the first domed church in England and something of a prototype for St Paul's), Dance's Mansion House, and a little further off, Lutyens' Midland Bank, steel-framed behind its sophisticated stone frontage, and Sir Edwin Cooper's National Westminster Bank building next to it.

One building, which has been there longer than all its neighbours, is totally dominant in its tributary of the intersection. The passer-by cannot help casting an interested glance at this curious building, St Mary Woolnoth. Like all great works of art, it acts at once on the emotions but it takes perhaps a little more consideration to recognize it as a building of immense power.

Fortuitous accidents of history play their part in the story of this church. Hawksmoor built St Mary Woolnoth using the coal tax proceeds of the 1711 Commission for Building Fifty New Churches in London. In 1900 the church was obliged to sell its crypt to the Underground railway for the sum of £340,000 for the building of the Bank station, a very large sum 100 years ago, which in turn financed the building of no less than 30 churches in the suburbs of London. A loss no doubt to St Mary Woolnoth but not to the community. Ironically, that railway station might deliver a second dowry to one of Hawksmoor's greatest churches.

From time to time proposals emerge for an underground shopping precinct below the intersecting streets and for the modernization of the Underground station to provide it with more passenger handling capability. With the correct signposting in a modernized station, St Mary Woolnoth, a very under-visited masterpiece and tucked away a little far from the main body of the intersection, could become a tourist attraction.

The site of St Mary Woolnoth, it seems, has always been used for religious purposes. Bronze Age man worshipped here by a holy spring and the Romans constructed a Temple of Concord on the site.

St Mary Woolnoth is first heard of in a deed of 1211 as Wlnotmaricherche, a Norman church.

There was also a neighbouring church, St Mary Woolchurch Haw, destroyed in the Fire of London, taking its name from the Wool Exchange. It was on the site of Dance's Mansion House and there is a plaque on the Mansion House wall in Wallbrook marking the place.

Following the amalgamation of the two parishes, the parish of St Mary Woolnoth became landlord of what is potentially a most valuable Freehold, that of the Mansion House itself, the home of the Lord Mayor, leased to the Corporation of the City of London on a peppercorn rent, with many centuries to run. It is another example of the curious, almost charmed, history of St Mary Woolnoth that has roots deep in the life of the City.

The pre-Hawksmoor St Mary Woolnoth was itself damaged but not destroyed in the Great Fire. Wren was commissioned to repair the fabric which he completed in 1674. The repairs would have been much more extensive, except that they were paid for by a parishoner and near neighbour, Sir Robert Vyner, Lord Mayor and goldsmith, whose vines grew close to the south wall and were not to be disturbed.

In the reign of Queen Anne the repaired church was held to be unsafe and the parishoners petitioned Parliament for funds for a new church.

Hawksmoor could very well have been instrumental in preparing the petition to make use of the old coal excise tax to build City churches. The resultant 1711 Commission for Building Fifty New Churches in London started Hawksmoor off on his own career at 50 having joined Wren's office as his personal clerk at 18.

The twists of history are interesting. Where would we be without the grandeur of Hawksmoor? Would 30 more churches have been built without the sale of the crypt of this compact gem?

He was appointed one of the two surveyors at a salary of £200 per year. The proceeds of the coal tax built twelve churches, six by Hawksmoor. His work at St Mary Woolnoth began in 1716 and was completed in 1727 and consecrated on Easter Day. It survived intact until 1875-76 when William Butterfield unwisely carried out the Victorian 'improvements'. The wooden galleries were removed and their fronts set against the walls.

As with Christ's Church, Spitalfields, also by Hawksmoor, the loss of the galleries makes a regrettable difference. Photographs of St Mary Woolnoth before their removal show a more sophisticated space, making better use of the subtle lighting and greater play of light and shade. The Baroque is an emotional style and a little of Hawksmoor's ability to project and combine emotions is inevitably lost, hidden by alterations.

After much objection, in 1900, the South London Underground Railway Company bought the crypt for what is now the Northern Line booking hall and St Mary Woolnoth became unique in being the only church over a railway station. The towering masonry is supported on steel beams that have shown no signs of instability all century. In the Second World War, St Mary Woolnoth remained unique in being the only City church to escape bomb damage.

Finally, renovation work to what is a structurally very sound church was carried out in 1968-69 and 1979-80 by the City architects of Seely and Paget.

In architectural terms St Mary Woolnoth is both totally dominant yet self-effacing and introspective. Its dominance lies in its degree of intensity, unmatched in the Bank area, its introspection in its detailing and enclosure of space.

Its frontispiece is described by Alastair Service as being 'like a piece of compressed matter vibrating on its foundations likely to explode at any moment'. Outranking its immediate neighbours in quality, it has the illusory air of biding its time until time gives its corner of the Bank area greater prominence.

It has been thought that its curious design was inspired by the idea of a previous Temple of Concord with an atrium-style interior, or based on Hugenot churches being built in France at the time. The more likely explanation is that it is probably largely Hawksmoor's own inspiration drawing occasionally on historical precedents.

In view of the restricted site, the plan form is very simple. On entering beneath the front tower, one is thrust almost immediately into the body of the church, a square within a square.

The inner square is defined by four sets of three Corinthian columns supporting a four-sided clerestory that generously lights the church with ref1ected light. The narthex is exceptionally short, little more than a lobby under the tower, but one has the characteristic Hawksmoor feel of being thrust from under the dark of a mass of masonry into the relative light of the church.

One feels much the same at his exemplary Christ's Church, Spitalfields. It is the play of light within that stamps the Hawksmoor hallmark. On the south King William Street side, the elevation with most sun, there are to supplement the clerestory, four high windows that with the changing sun cast varying bright shafts of light into the church. So, as at Christ's Church, there are always areas of relative dark to contrast with bright and moving shafts of angular light from on high. Between the clerestories is a square deep blue ceiling spangled with golden stars suggesting the fascinating allusion of a Mediterranean sky from an open atrium. The eastern clerestory light is disengaged from the tower in front so all four sides are genuinely lit.

The frontal elevation is the clearest denial that the design sprung from anywhere other than Hawksmoor's genius, from the fusing of the simplified Ionic base columns into the rustication of the whole to the inspired merging or crushing together of the twin towers into one. This particular combination of vocabulary, the delicate balance of horizontal and vertical, of rhythm, of framing, and of light and recess, is unique to this church.



The rustication, that rises to cornice level, carries round seemingly yet more boldly into the Lombard Street façade and needs to be seen at close quarters. Instead of windows this elevation has deeply sculpted arched recesses cut into the stone.

Whereas the front elevation is intense with contrasting hints of introspection in the long belfry window and dark openings, this elevation is more tempestuous. It is a bold expression, and the same effects of light and shade sculpted inside in light are achieved here in stone.

Inside once more, the baldecchino over the altar with its twisted oak columns is reminiscent of Bernini's at St Peter's, Rome. Hawksmoor is believed to have had the pillars of the Temple of Jerusalem in mind, 'pillars against which Christ leaned'.

Two historical curiosities are also to be found inside, anchors back into history. The Arms and banners of Sir Martin Bowes-Lyon, ancestor of the Queen Mother, goldsmith and benefactor, hang, maintained in perpetuity, showing the same red bows on a field of ermine that are found on the Queen Mother's own Arms, and a tablet to Edward Lloyd, who kept a coffee house in nearby Lombard Street, was buried here in 1713 and was, of course, the founder of Lloyds of London.

St Mary Woolnoth is a fragment of time, carrying part of the history of the City. Much like his contemporary, Le Corbusier, was doing with 'Towards a New Architecture', T.S.Eliot in 'The Waste Land' was culling fragments of history to show the way forward for modernism. 'These fragments I have shored against my ruins' and 'These withered stumps of time'. They were fragments of the best of European culture with roots back to biblical and Roman times and beyond. One of the fragments he noticed, whilst working nearby, and which he collected for the most important English language poem of the 20th century was St Mary Woolnoth:

'And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where St Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine'.