Windsor Castle Restoration

St George's Hall after the fire of November 1992 - the devastation is apparent
© Photographers International
Artist's impression of the proposed fully restored and redesigned St George's Hall
© Royal Collection

Windsor Castle Restoration

On 20 November 1992, the forty-fifth wedding anniversary of The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh, nine principal rooms and over 100 other rooms over an area of 7,000 square metres of the Upper Ward of Windsor Castle were damaged or destroyed by fire. Two hundred and fifty fire-fighters from five brigades tackled the blaze using over 6.5 million litres (around 1.5 million gallons) of water - the equivalent to the amount of water flowing over the Niagara Falls every two-and-a-half seconds - before the fire was finally extinguished 15 hours after it had started. The first task following the fire was to make the building safe and erect temporary roofing. At one stage, the fire-damaged area was shrouded in under temporary roofs supported by 125 km (75 miles) of scaffolding. The next task was to sift the debris to salvage reusable materials. This required 7,000 dustbins to remove the material for sifting. These finds were then sorted into 2,000 plastic bread baskets with each find individually numbered.

Once the best approach for the reconstruction of each room had been decided, permanent roofing was reinstated, windows were replaced and walls and floor boarding stripped at ground floor level to assist the drying out process. Much of the water used to extinguish the fire had soaked into the massive walls. Dehumidification, air circulation and natural ventilation were used to remove water from the building. The Castle was 80 per cent dry two years after the fire and the process is now complete.

Several exciting archaeological finds came to light including a medieval well that reached down some 42 metres to the level of the River Thames, fragments of Antonio Verrio's 17th century mural for Charles II in St George's Hall, a 17th century wall that has now been incorporated into the new Kitchen Court building, and a 14th century roof lantern in the Great Kitchen.

The Duke of Edinburgh and The Prince of Wales, Chairman and Vice-Chairman respectively of the Restoration Committee, have been closely involved with the project at every stage. Early on in the programme, the Restoration Committee concluded that of the principal rooms damaged or destroyed in the fire - the Grand Reception Room, the Octagon and the State Dining Rooms, and the Crimson and Green Drawing Rooms would be reinstated as they were before the fire. For the remaining principal rooms totally destroyed - the Private Chapel, Holbein and Stuart, as well as the East Screen and ceiling of St George's Hall - new designs would be called for, enabling the best of 20th century architecture to contribute to the evolution of Windsor Castle.

Following proposals from six eminent architects, the firm of Sidell Gibson was selected to carry out the new design work. The proposals included a new ceiling for St George's Hall described as a 'modern interpretation of Gothic', constructed from green oak, the first major project using this type of wood for more than 200 years. Another important factor in their design was to resolve the difficulty of the former Private Chapel which also acted as an ante-chamber for St George's Hall. A detailed study led to the conclusion that an octagonal-shaped new Ante-Room, now known as the Lantern Lobby, should be created on the site of the previous Chapel, which in turn would allow space for a new and separate Chapel in an extended Holbein Room.

Skilled workers are still busy at every level of the Castle. The 'finds' from the sifting of debris during the early stages have now been put to use. In the Crimson and Green Drawing Rooms ornate plaster ceilings are a mixture of salvaged pieces and reproductions. This 'recycling' is not only economical; it also ensures that all new fixtures, such as plaster mouldings, are exact replicas of the original pieces. Specialist glass workers are restoring five chandeliers containing thousands of pieces of crystal. Fragments recovered by 'micro sift' are being put back together while pieces beyond repair are replaced.

The full cost of restoring the fire-damaged areas of Windsor Castle was estimated at the time of the fire to be around £40m ($60m). Funding for the restoration project has come from two sources: 70 per cent from a combination of the net revenues from the opening (since 1993) of the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace during August and September each year, and from visitor admissions to the Precincts of Windsor Castle; the remainder comes from the existing annual Grant-in-Aid funding from the British Government provided for the maintenance and upkeep of the occupied Royal Palaces.

The restoration was originally scheduled for completion by the spring of 1998, five and a half years after the November 1992 fire. However, such excellent progress has been made on site that the work will now be completed by the fifth anniversary of the fire, well ahead of schedule and well below the £40m ($60m) target set at the time of the fire.

Windsor Castle is the largest occupied castle in the world and the restoration of the fire-damaged area is the largest historic building project this century, six times the size of the project which restored the 17th century wing of Hampton Court Palace after a similar catastrophic fire in 1986.

The Castle is open to visitors.

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