The 17th century facade of Cupola House is still shrouded in scaffolding and plastic sheets, the hangover from the devastating fire in June 2012. But behind this shield, a laborious restoration project is taking place.
After a fire started in the basement and ripped through the heart of the timber-framed building, decimating its north chimney and destroying its structural stability, an ambitious reconstruction project was planned by national architecture firm Purcell, which specialises in historical conservation. Two and half years on, the reconstruction is in full swing.
The horrific fire came a decade after the historic building was sold by brewing giant Greene King to OMC Investments. Following a substantial refurbishment, which involved some structural modifications, it was taken off the English Heritage ‘At Risk’ register in 2003 and was home to a Strada restaurant when the fire struck.
The blaze undid much of the owners’ work, stripping off paintwork, plaster and wallpaper and licking at the walls of the neighbouring buildings.
Much of the structure collapsed in on itself, creating a real risk of complete collapse.
Project architect Simon Marks said: “The fire could have spread spectacularly were it not for the solid brick wall between Cupola House and its left-hand neighbours. The main thing concerning the fire brigade at the time was the collapse of the building.
“Because it is so high it would just fall outwards, but they did not know which way it would fall. It threatened to take out others in the same area.
“Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service did heroic work to stop the fire spreading into the adjoining buildings.”
Chris Leveson, principal conservation officer for St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath councils said: “The effect was very localised. In the front room it looked as though nothing had happened - there were still plates and half-filled glasses left on the tables.”
Apart from the masonry basement, the entire building was timber-framed, causing the fire to work fast in the areas it hit. The Skinner Street frontage was virtually obliterated and only parts of the ground and first floors survived, but that which remained had lost its coherence and was consequently unable to support the remaining two floors above.
Despite being faced with a shell of the original building, Simon and his colleagues at Purcell, in conjunction with St Edmundsbury Borough Council, were determined to make the reconstruction as true to the original building as possible.
As many original materials are being used as possible, using lime plaster on the walls which have survived and reconstructing those that didn’t as they would have been before the blaze.
The timber frame windows have been repaired and a reconstructed cupola will be lifted into place with a crane.
“It has been a great challenge,” said Simon. “It could have been having a far more difficult task – the recording done by Paul Romaine and his consultants during the last restoration was invaluable and has been a vast help to us.”
The project has overrun initial estimates of a finishing date and there is no current cost estimate, but Ben Whatling, contract manager for building firm Seamans, says unanticipated problems have slowed the process.
“The extra work caused by what we have uncovered has had to be done retrospectively,” he said. “It is the consequences of the problems that have caused the hassle and the delays, as they have knock-on effects.”
Clearing the debris was a mammoth task, requiring huge amounts of time and effort to sort through the charred remains and find fabrics, metalwork and timbers that could be salvaged.
The wish to retain Cupola House’s 17th century character while giving the building back its structural stability prompted the design of a radical buidling frame – threading 38 tonnes of steel beams into the timbers, which Ben said were designed to be ‘lost within the construction’.
The real hard work is done in the basement. Underneath the reconstructed north chimney, steel pillars are connected to a concrete slab in the floor to take the weight of the 27,000 bricks above.
Alongside all this radical engineering is a painstaking attention to detail. The ravaged chimney was dismantled brick by brick, a mammoth process which ensured it could be rebuilt excatly as it had been taken down.
Carpenters for Seamans have also laboured to create new wooden decorations to adorn the building’s entrance, working from those which were salvaged from the original construction.
Chris, who worked on Cupola House’s previous restorations, said: “It is really good to see the project progress. The building is coming back together, you can picture the rooms and spaces as they were. These types of building are interesting because they always reveal more things. You don’t know what you are going to find, but that is a good thing.”
The extensive scaffolding currently supporting the west side of the building will stay in place until the frontage can be put back into its original, slightly tilted, position, with the first and second storeys sticking out marginally over the ground floor.
This tilt is in line with many of the building’s surfaces. None of the window sills are level and the floors at the front of the building are uneven, but Simon said the distortions that have developed over time will be built back into the structure.
With all the emphasis on retaining Cupola House’s original features, one thing which has been brought thoroughly up to date are the building’s fire prevention facilities.
Throughout the building there is built-in fire protection material, including in all the ceilings and floors, which can contain a fire for up to an hour and protects the steel behind it.
In the new kitchens there will be a fire supression system built into the cooker hoods and a sophisticated ventilation system, and sprinklers fed from a tank in the basement will be fitted throughout the building.
Speaking about the lengthy reconstruction process, which is expected to reach completion in August 2015, Simon remains pragmatic.
“It is impossible to predict all the critical issues, even now two thirds of the way up the building,” he said.
“We cannot say for certain there are not any more, but these buildings have their own methodology and if more problems arise we will be made aware of it by the building in due course.
“If we asked people about Cupola House’s defining features they would remember the cupola, the staircase and the panelling, so recreating those is very important to us.
“If people come in and see it as they remembered it, we will have reached our goal.”