50 Years Not Out – but the Wigwam could have been so different

2017 is a year of great anniversaries across Merseyside and one in particular comes to mind: Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, officially known as the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, and more unofficially known locally as ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’, ‘The Pope’s Launching Pad’, and ‘The Mersey Funnel’ amongst others, celebrates its fiftieth in May.

The Cathedral is built in concrete with a Portland stone cladding and an aluminium covering to the roof. Its plan is circular, having a diameter of 195 feet (59 m), with 13 chapels around its perimeter. The shape of the Cathedral is conical, and it is surmounted by a tower in the shape of a truncated cone. The building is supported by 16 boomerang-shaped concrete trusses which are held together by two ring beams, one at the bends of the trusses and the other at their tops. Flying buttresses are attached to the trusses, giving the cathedral its tent-like appearance. Rising from the upper ring beam is a lantern tower, containing windows of stained glass, and at its peak is a crown of pinnacles.  

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What many people don’t know however is that this is in fact the fourth cathedral envisaged for the city whose landscape would have looked very different if one of the earlier proposals had properly got to see the light of day.

The Catholic population of Liverpool increased dramatically following the Irish potato famine of 1847 and with the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850 (Catholicism was proscribed following the Reformation) it was only a matter of time before the need for a Cathedral was identified and its design was entrusted in 1853 to Edward Welby Pugin, son of Augustus Welby Pugin, foremost architect of the Gothic Revival. Within three years a Lady Chapel was constructed within the grounds of one of Liverpool’s oldest mansions, San Domingo House in Everton. No further work was undertaken however as funds were diverted towards the education of Catholic children instead. The Lady Chapel went on to serve as a church for the local parish until its demolition in the 1980’s.

In 1922 the idea of a Cathedral was reborn and the site of a workhouse on Brownlow Hill was identified which had been a shelter for Liverpool’s destitute since 1771, the majority of whom were Catholic, and in 1930 the nine-acre (36,000 m2) plot was acquired for £100,000. The chosen architect was Sir Edwin Lutyens, famous for the Whitehall Cenotaph. At the other end of Hope Street, the Gothic Liverpool Anglican Cathedral was being constructed under the direction of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, and Lutyens’ design response was to be a great dome 168 feet (51 metres) in diameter with an internal height of 287 feet (87 metres). The height from ground level to the top of the lantern would be 520 feet (158 metres). To understand this scale better, the tower of the Anglican Cathedral only rises to 330 feet (101 metres). We have a good idea of the design as a scale model was constructed which was found in the 1990’s in a store cupboard in the nearby School of Architecture at the University of Liverpool and which is now on display at the Museum of Liverpool.

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Construction commenced in 1933 and work on the Crypt went on until 1941 when the war put building activities on hold. It would be completed after the war by which time the cost of the proposed Romanesque superstructure designed to sit above it had risen to £27m (£1.2bn in today’s values) and any further work ceased.

If you get a chance, it is worth going to look at the Lutyens Crypt and marvel at what may have been. A £3m refurbishment in 2009 included new east and west approaches, archive provision, rewiring and new lighting, catering facilities, a new chancel, new toilets and revamped exhibitions. Of special interest is the six-ton fretted marble disc separating a Chapel of Relics in which lie the tombs of three former Archbishops of Liverpool and which rolls open and closed in allusion to the stone sealing the tomb of Christ until the moment of his resurrection.

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In 1953 Adrian Gilbert Scott, brother of the architect of the Anglican Cathedral, was commissioned to scale down Lutyens plans into something more akin to the available £4m budget. Scott’s design retained the massive dome feature which would have made it the largest in the world but his proposals were not popular and met with heavy criticism, more than likely from the Vatican whose own St Peter’s Basilica at a mere 137.7 feet (42.0m) in diameter would have paled into comparison.

In 1960 under a new Archbishop the race to design a Cathedral for Liverpool was set into motion for a fourth time as architects from around the world were invited to submit proposals which were fitting of the available budget; related to the already constructed Crypt; were capable of being built within 5 years; and most importantly perhaps, would express the new spirit of the liturgy then being reformulated by the Second Vatican Council. The chosen design, by Sir Frederick Gibberd, was commenced in October 1962 and the completed Cathedral was consecrated less than five years later, on the Feast of the Pentecost, 14 May 1967, with the circular nave with the altar at its centre successfully addressing the need for a congregation of some 2-3,000 to be fully involved in the celebration of the Mass.

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Unfortunately for this truly striking piece of architecture, the innovative techniques used in its construction were carried out perhaps too quickly and economically which sadly left it beset with several problems including water ingress through the façade. A programme of repair and replacement was implemented during the 1990’s and completed in 2003 when the wide flight of steps leading up from Hope Street, part of Gibberd’s original proposal which couldn’t be implemented at the time, were finally unveiled. At the top of those steps stands the huge 80 feet (24.5m) façade of the bell tower above the main entrance, on either side of which are the cold-cast bronze sliding doors depicting the winged emblems of the four evangelists – the man of St Matthew; the lion of St Mark; the ox of St Luke; and the eagle of St John. High above there lies a pattern of crosses and crowns carved in deep relief into the stonework. Above this again are the four bells dedicated (in descending order of size) to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, designed to ring freely in a harmonious chord or to be individually tolled through an electrical operation. And above all that rises its majestic lantern and crown – it truly is a sight to behold.

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