Parish Church of St. Mary, the Virgin, Aldermanbury
1677 - London
1969 - Fulton, Missouri
Discovering a 17th century, Christopher Wren-designed, London parish church in Midwestern America is the architect's equivalent of seeing a mirage in the desert. Or, like finding buried treasure.
St. Mary, Aldermanbury church and parish were established in Medieval London; the original gothic styled structure was mostly destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666; rebuilt/redesigned by the great Sir Christopher Wren in the late 1670's. As a result of German Luftwaffe incendiary bombings in December 1940, St. Mary, Aldermanbury received a direct hit, caught fire and burned a second time, leaving only the skeleton of stone exterior walls and interior columns.
In this day and age of angry historic preservation battles, it is nearly impossible to imagine such priceless relics offered up-for-the-taking as London rebuilt large portions of it's bombed neighborhoods. Reconstruction funds were limited and London church parishes underwent massive reogranization - reflecting the obvious changes in demography from those parishes reconstructed after the Great Fire - not all parish churches could be saved from the wrecking ball. In 1960, the fire-bombed ruins of St. Mary, Aldermanbury were classified as redundant, and on the list for demolition.
Enter Robert L.D. Davidson, President of Westminster College in 1961, a man with the epiphany to purchase ruins of a London church in order create an on-campus memorial to commemorate Winston Churchill and the occassion of his famous speech. Just imagine the negotiations involved with the transaction of such a national treasure! The architectural effort alone is hard to imagine; the successful transport and reconstruction of historic materials in an era before the science of Historic Preservation had reached it's professional status, is heroic and attributed mainly to Marshall Sisson, RIBA.
Westminster College is located in Fulton, MO - a little over two hours drive east from Kansas City. Most folks know Fulton as famous for being the site of Winston Churchill's 1946 speech known as the "Iron Curtain" address predicting the Cold War and calling for post WWII Anglo-American alliance.
Thanks to the National Churchill Museum, located in St. Mary's crypt space, the church itself is in mint condition (well....17th century stone is going to show a little wear...). Assistant Director Sara Winingear; Archivist/Curator Elisabeth Murphy; and Historian Karen Montgomery; are directly responsible for creating a "Churchillian" pilgrimage site within the museum, the memorial, and library collections. More importantly - to this architect - they also keep St. Mary, Aldermanbury well-preserved as the focus of architectural heritage on the Westminster College campus - and very well-interpreted for visitors. Over the years, the Museum has coordinated the preservation of the Wren-era building and managed to acquire a Wren-designed pulpit originally crafted for All Hallows the Great parish in 1683, as a fitting addition to the interior architecture. This pulpit follows suit with the vestry and altarpiece millwork expertly designed in the 1950's by British architect Marshall Sisson (no doubt inspired by his great familiarity and study of Wren's work).
The story of this church is absolutely riveting, I highly recommend reading A Comprehensive History of the London Church and Parish of St. Mary, the Virgin, Aldermanbury: The Phoenix of Aldermanbury by Christian E. Hauer, Jr. and William A. Young. The book follows the evolution, destruction and rebirth of the parish and structure from Roman times, thru the Norman Conquest, English Reformation, WWII, and transatlantic reconstruction in Fulton.
Pictured above is a spiral stair with original stone material that dates to the pre-Wren, 12th century edition of St. Mary, Aldermanbury church.