After 50 years in Fulton, the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury needed a face lift.
When the National Churchill Museum housed in its undercroft was forced to close by the ongoing pandemic, that seemed like the perfect time to launch into a long list of conservation and renovation projects, according to museum Director and Curator Tim Riley.
"We decided to stay closed to accelerate our renovation efforts," he explained.
Riley gave an update on those projects during Tuesday's Fulton City Council meeting.
The church, designed by architect Christopher Wren, was destroyed by German bombs during the London Blitz. It came to Fulton stone by stone to serve as a memorial to Churchill's historic "Iron Curtain" speech, a process that began in 1965 and was completed in 1967.
The renovations are the next step in a multi-year plan that began in 2017 to preserve the museum and its contents. Conservators are making an effort to use mostly materials that would've been available when the church was rebuilt following the Great Fire of London in the 1670s. The museum even commissioned a 2017 study of 17th-century stone in order to preserve the church's history.
The multi-year plan started in fall 2018, when contractors installed new copper downspouts along the church.
Then, in September 2019, crews power-washed the western facade of the church and remortared many of its stones. After decades of gathering grime, they needed a good scrub and TLC — flakes of stone had started to fall away from the building.
Later, the museum's worn, wood-veneer doors were replaced with custom-made doors of solid oak. A storm window now protects the ancient glass in the church's central west window.
But the museum's pandemic-related closure provided an excellent opportunity for the biggest project yet.
"We're calling it 'The Big Dig,'" Riley said.
For about the last decade, the church's undercroft has periodically flooded during heavy rains. A study by an engineering firm revealed that Westminster College's watershed flowed downhill to the museum. The best solution, the firm suggested, would be to dig up the ground around the church and install drains to redirect the water to the nearest storm drain on Seventh Street. But the drain didn't have the necessary capacity.
"That's where we needed help," Riley said.
Representatives from the museum and the city of Fulton met in December to plan storm drain improvements, which were carried out in February. Riley voiced his gratitude to the city for their assistance.
"This was a great partnership," he said. "When we called, you answered, and when we needed help, you gave it."
During the Tuesday meeting, he and Don Lofe — Westminster College's interim president and chief transformation officer — presented Fulton Mayor Lowe Cannell a plaque engraved onto a pane of glass from the church as a token of the museum's gratitude.
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The museum's full-body statue of Churchill, which normally resides outside next to the stairs, was temporarily removed in June for safekeeping. Its base was unstable, and the statue was at risk of being damaged by construction equipment. While he's away, he'll be scrubbed free from prison droppings.
But Churchill was hiding a secret, Riley said. In the statue's base, they found a time capsule hidden in a whiskey bottle, apparently placed by the statue's maker in 1971, based on a Fulton Sun newspaper clipping inside the bottle. He said the museum is working on a short documentary about the time capsule, and it will be replaced when the statue comes home in 2021.
"He'll be back on watch next year," Riley said.
In total, the museum anticipates spending around $3.1 million on all phases of the restoration effort.
Future phases of the project will involve re-installing the Churchill statue, cleaning and conserving the stone on the building's remaining faces, replacing the windows' leading and damaged panes and adding more storm windows. The concrete deck surrounding the church also must be replaced, Riley said.
Riley is confident the conservation will keep the church in good shape for decades to come. It's just one more chapter in the church's long history.
"We like to think of ourselves as a beacon of resilience," he said.