Builders and architects discovered decades-old time capsules hidden behind stone blocks as they restored Malta’s tallest historical building.
One of them is a small cigarette packet that used to belong to one of the construction workers. It was a way for builders to leave a proud legacy for future generations. The 67-metre tower and spire of the St Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral that majestically adorns the Valletta skyline has gone through a six-year mammoth restoration that is nearing completion.
Times of Malta climbed to the topmost tip of the tower with two of the architects overseeing the restoration, who disclosed some surprises that the restorers had found along the way.
One of the more pleasant surprises was a time capsule – an old cigarette packet manufactured by one of the major British tobacco companies at the time.
The architects believe the packet was opened by a builder who wrote the initials of his name, his surname and the year that he was working on the tower – 1957 – in pencil on the inside cover.
He then placed it back behind a stone block inside the majestic tower and left it there, probably to leave a legacy and document his work.
“They definitely wanted to be remembered for having worked on this building. They would do it because they’re proud of their work. It used to happen all around the world in the construction industry,” Guillaume Dreyfuss, who is the research director at AP Valletta, said.
“It also helps us understand what interventions were done and during which period,” he added.
They also found several engravings – dating back to 1845 – also documenting masons’ and carpenters’ names, which have proved to help greatly with the restoration project since most of the construction work and restoration interventions were only poorly documented over the decades.
Dreyfuss said the packet was found by chance because the stone that was covering it happened to have needed removal. Most of the stone was not removed so there must be other time capsules still hidden in the building, the architects believe.
And they will remain so, at least for the next few decades, until future restorers feel the need to intervene on the historical building again.
The cigarette packet will be preserved and displayed in the cathedral’s visitors’ centre and the architects have been asked to leave their own time capsules for future generations.
“We don’t know what it will be and we haven’t yet decided where it will be placed, either,” Dreyfuss said, adding that the modern builders and architects have now digitally documented every step of the process.
A historic restoration
Built in 1844, St Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral is a Grade 1 listed building that forms an intrinsic part of Malta’s cultural heritage and is a universally recognised landmark in Valletta.
It graces the Valletta skyline along with the dome of the Carmelite basilica, fooling many tourists and locals into thinking that they are one and the same church when, in fact, they belong to two different churches… of two different denominations.
The thick, complex scaffolding structure that currently engulfs the building will be dismantled by July, revealing once again the tower in its former glory.
The project will have cost upward of €4 million.
The iconic, monumental tower might seem awe-inspiring at a distance but, in 2017, restorers found it had suffered major deterioration when they examined it up close. What seemed like a few cracks in the stone turned out to be much larger, detrimental fractures caused by iron cramps that were embedded inside the structure at eight different levels.
The cramps, each 4.5 metres long, resemble huge ‘staples’ that were inserted inside the building to, quite literally, keep it together.
The 19th century British engineering technology was remarkable enough to allow the structure to survive for many decades but the corrosion around the iron became extremely dangerous.
“The iron had expanded so much that it fractured the stone and opened the joints so much so that we could see the metal – that was about 40 centimetres inside – from the outside,” Dreyfuss said.
“We knew about the iron cramps and we knew they were threatening the integrity of the building but it was only when we set up the scaffolding that we became aware of the extent of the damage,” Charlene Jo Darmanin, design director and conservation architect at AP Valletta, explained.
Consequently, she said, the tower had to be reinforced with iron structures on the outside so that builders would be able to remove whole blocks, and in some cases entire strips of stone, to remove the cramps.
They then replaced the old blocks with new ones and introduced a modern reinforcement system inside the tower – one that does not corrode over time.
Darmanin said that, in some instances where the stone carvings had deteriorated beyond repair, new boulders were hoisted up to replace the old ones as sculptors carved the new stone according to the original designs.
When unveiled, the tower will also look somewhat different because four large urns were added on top of the finials that decorate the foot of the spire.
The urns show in the original designs and old photographs of the tower but disappeared over time.
The newly-carved urns will restore the tower to its original 19th century design.
Darmanin and Dreyfuss work for a leading architectural firm, AP Valletta, which is responsible for the overall direction of the project.
The tower underwent restoration after World War II and further interventions in the 1980s but documentation describing the interventions is limited.
In 2016, the cathedral applied for EU funds and launched a public appeal to restore the church and tower.
Among the most notable donors was King (then Prince) Charles who, in 2017, reportedly made a generous – although undisclosed – donation towards the restoration.
Later that year, in October, he visited the cathedral when he was in Malta to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the day the island was awarded the George Cross.
Another hefty donation came from the producer behind Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon – billionaire theatrical producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh – who owns a home in Valletta. He donated €100,000.
Plans were initially drafted for the restoration of the church as well and eventually the cathedral obtained another €4.2 million from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) to move ahead with the project.
But the overall costs escalated way beyond the original estimates due to the booming construction industry.
Furthermore, the onset of the virus pandemic dramatically stifled fund-raising efforts, causing project financing to take a serious hit.
In the circumstances, it was concluded that the priority must be to complete the restoration of the threatened tower and spire and, hopefully, to postpone work on the church fabric, roof and ceiling for a next phase when new funding from other sources might become available.
Even though the newly restored tower will soon be unveiled, the cathedral is still seeking donations.
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