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story.lead_photo.caption Preservation Historian Esley Hamilton details the fates of architect Christopher Wren's many churches. He delivered the talk in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury, the only Wren church in the U.S. Photo by Helen Wilbers / Fulton Sun.

By now, most Callawegians have likely heard the story of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury.

Though the elegant stone church now resides on Westminster College's campus, it was birthed in the 1670s in London — one of a number of churches built by famed architect Christopher Wren following the 1666 Great Fire of London. The Blitz reduced it to rubble in the 1940s, and Westminster College rescued it in the 1960s, reconstructing the building in Missouri.

"As an architectural historian, I use this church building as my notorious trick question: 'What is the oldest building in Missouri?'" said Bill Hart, executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation.

What many might not know is what happened to Wren's 51 other churches. Historic preservationist Esley Hamilton shared their stories during a lecture Friday at St. Mary Aldermanbury.

Wren's churches symbolize rebirth and rebuilding. The Great Fire burned much of London to the ground — including St. Paul's Cathedral; its roof melted and dripped into the street. London was and is a city full of churches, though today many are hidden by skyscrapers and office complexes.

"(Historically,) it was a forest of towers," Hamilton said.

Each parish has its own, and with such a high population density, a single parish may only be two or three blocks.

"Wren was one of several intellectuals who said, 'This is a great opportunity to rebuild our city on modern principles,'" Hamilton said.

Wren's background was in mathematics and astronomy; he'd only designed a couple of buildings before the fire, though King Charles II had appointed him the city's surveyor of works. While Wren's vision for a London built on straight, modern streets didn't quite work out, he was put in charge of redesigning and rebuilding 52 churches.

"One of the great things about these churches is the way Wren had to take the piece of land given to him and work with it," Hamilton said.

This led to unique designs where the tower is almost entirely separate from the rest of the church (like St. Mary-le-Bow), or square or octagonal interiors — as opposed to the standard rectangle. Even St. Mary Aldermanbury isn't quite a perfect rectangle.

"Wren was never afraid to try something new," Hamilton said.

However, Wren's work has reoccurring themes, some of which can be seen at St. Mary Aldermanbury: round windows, spires made of multiple stacked elements, complex leaded glass and ornate woodwork.

Remarkably, all 52 churches were completed within Wren's own lifetime (he kept working well into his 80s). Then began the work of preserving them.

In the years since, many have been tragically destroyed. The first to fall was St. Christopher le Stocks, which fell in 1782 to make way for an expanding bank. Others were torn down in the late 1860s — a time when London's population was decreasing in favor of commerce, and the city needed the land.

"But the biggest threat to the survival of Wren's achievement was World War II," Hamilton said.

Bombing by German warplanes set London ablaze, and three of Wren's churches were damaged beyond repair.

"Quite a few were rebuilt, none of them quite as they had been," Hamilton said. "The rebuilding varied from quite respectful to wildly different."

Some churches have ended up as coffee houses. Six were reduced to just their spires — one is an entrance to an office building; another is a private residence.

Others, including Hamilton's personal favorites St. Agnes and St. Anne, have been restored to their former glory. It took until 1966 for these churches to be rebuilt, he said. Hamilton described the interiors as "almost like an Orthodox church."

In restoring St. Mary Aldermanbury, the architects and restorationists hired by Westminster actually had to undo some changes introduced in the 19th century, which included adding straight balustrades to the exterior. Hamilton praised the finished product.

"You've created a work here that's not only part of a grand architectural achievement, it's something you can live in and enjoy here in Fulton," he said.

Churchill Museum Curator Timothy Riley said he's glad Westminster can keep St. Mary Aldermanbury alive — it's served as everything from a wedding venue to a chapel to a movie theater.

"It's living history," he said.

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