A Suffolk Georgian gem rises from the ashes

Ecclesiastical & Heritage World Cupola HouseWhen a major fire raged through the Grade One-listed Cupola House in Bury St Edmunds in 2012, the fire service called upon local specialist builders Seamans Building to make the building safe. After bringing in long-reach demolition plant to help secure the structure, Seamans embarked upon clearing the debris, preparing the site for surveys and erecting a temporary scaffolded structure to preserve the integrity of what remained.

Architects Purcell then began work, in partnership with English Heritage, St Edmundsbury Borough Council and a team of specialist consultants, to stabilise the surviving built fabric and reconstruct the lost historic features. Using all the available information about the building, which was built in 1693, the architectural team recreated the principal spaces and reintroduced many of the building’s architectural details, including panelling, cornices, architraves and the staircase.

Ecclesiastical & Heritage World Cupola HouseFollowing the tender process, Seamans Building were appointed as main contractor for the reconstruction work. Many of the company’s directly-employed skilled craftsmen were involved on the project and it was an excellent opportunity for their six apprentices to experience working on an historic structure.

The company had already received local awards for work on two Grade One-listed buildings – Woodbridge Tidemill and the Wolsey Art Gallery next to Ipswich’s Christchurch Mansion – however, the challenges and scale of working on the confined site in the centre of Bury St Edmunds tested the resolve and skills of all involved.

Ecclesiastical & Heritage World Cupola HouseThroughout the project Seamans worked closely with the consultancy team, in particular Purcell and structural engineers Richard Jackson Engineering Consultants, to construct a building that replicates the original structure whilst being upgraded to cater for current building and fire regulation standards.
Wherever possible the original fabric that survived the fire has been salvaged and re-used. These include elements of the stairs, panel mouldings, a significant amount of the exterior cornice and the metal fireplace grates which have been fitted back into the reconstructed chimneys.

A new steel frame, which has been intricately threaded through what remains of the original timber frame, is completely concealed within walls and behind the wall linings. It has been fitted to distribute the weight of the new and surviving structures evenly over the original basement.

Ecclesiastical & Heritage World Cupola HouseIn May the new timber-framed cupola was hoisted into the air and placed atop the roof, between the two towering chimneys. Both required considerable reconstruction after the fire left them in an unstable condition.

High levels of craftsmanship can be found in the cupola construction, the oak staircase, room panelling, chimney brickwork, plastering and the ornate wood carvings that adorn the building both inside and out. Ben Whatling, Seamans production manager, who was contract manager on the project, pointed to the local craftsmanship involved. He said: “While the devastating fire was a blow to the whole of Bury St Edmunds, it is reassuring that the necessary skill and expertise was found locally to reconstruct this heritage landmark. Our workforce and supply chain have committed whole heartedly to producing a quality product that will hopefully last another 300 years.”

The project was completed in July and is awaiting its new tenants.

For further information visit www.seamans.co.uk

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