Project: London Coliseum
Architects: Arts Team @ RHWL
The Coliseum is just off Trafalgar Square, at the bottom of St Martin’s Lane. Home to the English National Opera, it has just reopened following a £58 million refurbishment by Arts Team @ RHWL, under the watchful eye of English Heritage officials. Most attention has focused on the beautifully restored auditorium, but the success of the whole operation has depended on the details – and among these was the architectural ironmongery.
How we became involved.
We have quite a strong background in restoration. We have done work in Scotland and were working on St George’s Hall in Liverpool, so we felt we had the experience and we put our name forward. There was a very short interview, mainly to see if we were up to the job, and then we went into tender with four other companies.
‘We knew we could do it and we got the contract because we took an experienced guess and said we would do it for £200,000. I think the others wanted a list of questions answered and quoted an hourly rate. We had a price that we would stick with. So we were novated to the general contractor – who took the pieces off the doors, numbered them, bagged them up and sent them to us. We took out the items and cleaned them or made them new and gave them back. It was a bag of working door ironmongery for a bag of junk.’
The items included handles, back-plates, kick-plates, closers, panic bars and floor springs, most of them in bronze. There were two sizes of door handles – 90 large ones and 45 small, but both took the form of cod-Roman torches attached to back-plates that had also been used on the other side of doors as the push-plate. These handles were in cast bronze and, ‘the normal way would have been to take a sand casting from the actual handle and make a bronze working model.’ But the sharp edges had worn off over a century of use. Had we simply taken casts of the handles they would have been of the 21st century version, not the original.
So we employed a sculptor, who used a clay casting of the original, sharpened up the edges and blurred details, and from this clean-cut ‘original’ made a master for multiple bronze casts using the traditional lost wax process.
The really difficult items, ‘were the panic bars, for which we had to machine lots of very tricky parts. We were able to salvage parts for others – we needed to make 14 panic bars and could cannibalise 22 [from non-essential parts of the theatre] but still we had to make some springs and screws.’
The people who can do this work are fast disappearing. ‘They have little lathes in their garages and are mainly retired – our lock man has worked with locks and keys all his life. The nicest thing was that the panic-bar chap can actually remember making them as a boy apprentice.’
With acknowledgement to Sutherland Lyall AJ Focus.