Peter Murphy, Director at FMP Architects, talks about the challenges of restoring Honan Chapel at University College Cork
Congratulations on winning the ‘Adaptation and Re-use’ award at the 2022 RIAI Awards for your work on Honan Chapel. Can you tell me about the project?
Thank you. Honan Chapel, which was built in 1915, is located within the grounds of UCC. A proper conservation job hadn’t been carried out on the church in quite a few years, so it was badly in need of restoration. A lot of water ingress had caused damage internally, the stained glass needed repairing as did the floor mosaics and the timber work and mechanical and electrical installations needed upgrading. The church was very solid – really it was the envelope and the finishes that needed to be addressed.
What is it about Honan Chapel that makes it so important?
When it was built in 1915, it was very futuristic in terms of its finishes, both inside and out. The entrance is Hiberno Romanesque and as you go further into the church, the interior is a mixture of the medieval and modern. There are 19 stained glass windows, 11 of which are by Harry Clarke while the other eight are by Sarah Purser of An Túr Gloine. Whenever you read anything about the church, quite often the windows will be mentioned first. They’re very much iconic symbols of the building. The joinery of the church is also very unusual, with references to Art Nouveau and Art Deco referenced throughout. The period when the church was built would have been the start of the Arts and Crafts movement, which then led to the Art Nouveau period. The Honan Chapel fell right into the middle of that period. What’s quite extraordinary is that the Honan Trust at the time recognised all these emerging styles and deployed them, something that was completely out of sync with what the Catholic Church would have envisaged for a church building at the time. Back then, churches were being designed and built very much in the traditional medieval style so to deviate from that was very unusual. It was built by John Sisk in just over a year. It took us just as long to restore it and although Covid did cause a few delays, it’s no exaggeration to say that this was a lengthy, complex process.
What were some of the biggest challenges on the project?
Definitely investigating the source of water ingress in isolated areas of the building. We had one particular corner of the building where water was coming in, so we ran tests to try and ascertain where the water was coming from. In historic buildings like these, the walls are about 600ml thick. In the middle, you have what we call a central core with limestone on the outside and in this case, brick on the inside. What we didn’t know was whether or not the interior of the wall had cavities in it. With this particular corner, we tried to grout the wall and fill the holes but that didn’t work, so we spent five weeks carrying out water tests on the wall. It was a very testing time; we couldn’t be sure that we’d ever find a solution, which was a real problem as the interior of the church was so important. We got there in the end but it took a long time. The other main challenge on the project was the concern that the artefacts in the building, such as the stained glass or the exterior stone, might get damaged.
Great care must have been required to avoid any damage to such priceless artefacts
Yes, absolutely. It’s so important in conservation work that you have builders that understand the conservation process in the same way that the design team do. We had an excellent builder on this project, Joe Costello of Stone Mad, who’s a third generation mason. I’ve worked with him on a number of projects; he’s superb and has a natural understanding of stone and of how to deal with historic buildings. We had about 14 expert craftsmen on this project, all working together to restore the church to its former glory. When it came to the Harry Clarke stained glass windows, it would be difficult to even put a figure on them, they’re priceless. Putting scaffolding up beside the windows was very risky but necessary, as we needed access to all parts of the windows so we could inspect and repair them and remove the exterior storm glazing. To carry out that work, masons were pointing right up to the edge of the glass. There were all these people who could in effect damage the glass but because we had such excellent craftspeople on the project, we were collectively able to complete the project without any major problems.
What were some of the other works that were required on the project?
The old joints had to be raked out as unfortunately they had been repointed sometime in the late 20th century with a cementitious mix. We also had to take away and replace lead work, we had to lift copings and recede them and repair works were required on the roof. All the limestone external faces had to be cleaned and internally, the five old arch spines on the ceiling had to be repaired. We also had to replace a lot of the old wiring, including speaker systems, security systems and lighting systems. Of course, all wiring had to be hidden. With a protective structure, you can’t just come along with a drill and put a hole in the wall. The rationale for conservation is to not interfere with a structure and try and maintain and restore it without damaging its integrity, so we thought long and hard about how we would conceive the wiring without interfering with the structure.
Also, there was an old extract and intake vent system on the roof, featuring two decorative plaster motifs. We were able to repair one of them but the other required special attention. I had heard of only two or three master plasterers in the country that could do this work and we ended up having to wait about four months for Kevin Hargrove, who I’ve worked with in the past, just to do one motif in the ceiling. That’s the level of care and precision that we took with this project.
The pews within the church were also very distinctive
They were made out of old Irish oak and in a design that I had never seen before. They’re very detailed and totally unique. The weight of these pews was phenomenal – it took five or six men to lift just one. Not long after we started, we decided we’d have to take all the pews out of the church and put them into storage before working out a way of restoring them without damaging their integrity. With furniture like this, a darkening of the timber naturally occurs. We needed to find a restoration company that could look after the pews in a respectful way. Bethany Joinery in Leitrim arrived down to the church with an articulated truck – every pew had to be numbered, photographed and carefully put onto the truck. The pews were gone for two or three months and were beautifully restored when they came back.
Can you tell me about the iron gates in front of the church doors?
I had heard rumours that at one stage, there had been iron grille gates on the front of the church in front of the doors. The idea behind the gates was that you could keep them closed, open the doors of the church in the summertime and allow the interior to be properly aired. We were told they were in storage somewhere so we ended up finding them in an old storage room on the campus. They are absolutely extraordinary in their design, representing pure Art Nouveau, with a mixture of more modern references. We believe that they were taken down due to changes made in Vatican II and a decision to make churches more open. It was a crying shame that they were ever taken down. So we restored them, put them back up and now, they represent an iconic symbol of the church. They’re the first thing you see when you arrive at the church and they have been much admired. They’re a true symbol of Art Nouveau, which is very rare in a church.
How special is this project to FMP Architects?
It’s very special. For me particularly it was fantastic as I’ve a particular interest in conservation work. It wasn’t without its challenges but to see the finished product is amazing. Winning the RIAI Award was also very gratifying, not just for us as a practice but also for Joe Costello and all the craftspeople involved.
Michael McDonnell – Managing Editor of Irish Construction Industry Magazine & Plan Magazine