Ready for another 100 years

2012-09-27 00:00

THE restoration of the original mission church at Centocow built in 1894 is almost complete. “It hasn’t fallen down, which is important,” comments Robert Brusse, the project’s architect. “Just minimal things need to be done — a touch of varnish and some lights.”

The Centocow Mission stands on the slopes above the Umzimkulu River, just over 10 kilometres from Creighton in southern KwaZulu-Natal and is one of 22 mission stations established by the Mariannhill Monastery mother house near Pinetown. It was founded in 1888 by Abbot Francis Pfanner. A Polish princess had given a donation to buy the land, so Pfanner named the station after the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Poland. Czestochowa became simplified into Centocow.

The restored building will house a gallery and museum showcasing the art of Gerard Bhengu, who grew up at Centocow, the culture and history of the local Xhosa and Bhaca people, and that of the monks of Mariannhill who created Centocow and built the church. The gallery and museum will be a key element in the Ingwe’s Municipality’s promotion of “mission tourism”, an initiative driven by Dudley Smith, the municipality's economic development manager.

News of the restoration project has seen the return of items removed from the church when it was deconsecrated 30 years ago. These include the original yellowwood altar rail which had been in the safe-keeping of the Symes family. When Eric Symes, who died earlier this year, heard about the restoration he undertook to return the rail to its original home.

“We hope more people will donate items back, now that the church has been renovated,” says Smith. “Some have already donated some nice grinding stones.”

Interviewed by The Witness earlier this year, Brusse said he and his team were “working on the principle that this gallery and museum have to set the bar high for conservation in KZN”.

By all accounts, they have succeeded. “Brusse’s enthusiasm for the project and his insistence on the retention of as much original material as possible has proven to others in the profession that this level of restoration is achievable,” says Ros Devereaux, head of the heritage body Amafa’s Built Environment Section. “Where most would have written off the building, he was prepared to take on the challenge and come up with solutions.”

“The restoration was a very tricky one. It was technically difficult — a lot of people put their necks on the line — but the architect, the engineer, Hugh Bowman, and the contractor, Malcolm Lawton, all went with it together.”

The restoration cost nearly R4,5 million, but the first step in the process saw the Catholic Church give the church to the Ingwe Municipality on the understanding that the municipality would restore it. The subsequent restoration was funded by R2,7 million from the National Lotteries Board, R500 000 from the Joan St Leger Lindbergh Charitable Trust, R1 million from the Sisonke District Municipality and R200 000 from the Ingwe Municipality.

The church, built in 1894, had fallen into a considerable state of disrepair and Brusse earlier acknowledged there were “dangerous structural aspects to this contract”.

Perhaps the most dangerous, certainly the trickiest, involved the tower. “The original builders just used soil in the mortar resulting in very thin pointing between the bricks,” says Bowman. “This had become significantly overstressed. Over the years, the soil had eroded out, plus there were probably a couple of lightning strikes. Above the first-floor level, the brickwork was bursting. Added to this, the tower had no proper foundations.”

The obvious solution was to demolish the tower and rebuild it, but Brusse and Bowman decided, instead, to support the upper section of the tower with steel pillars and then dismantle the lower section. “Then we laid proper foundations and rebuilt it, using the original brickwork, and then reattached it.”

Was there a risk of collapse? “We covered as many eventualities as we could think of,” says Bowman, “and decided it was at no greater risk of collapsing than before we intervened.”

The rebuilt section also had to match the upper structure which is constructed at a slight angle. “The angle is only visible to a practised eye,” says Bowman. “We are not sure whether this was the result of the original construction or the bursting brickwork at the lower level. At one point, there is a distinct change in bricklaying pattern. Maybe they realised they were not going up plumb and changed the pattern to accommodate that, but they were not able to rectify it completely.”

According to Devereaux, few engineers would have been prepared to take the chance that Bowman took on the tower restoration. “Most would have said that there was no alternative but to deconstruct and reconstruct it on a new footing,” she says. “The loss of heritage fabric would have been enormous, so we are deeply thankful that both architect and engineer were able to save most of the original fabric of the tower.”

Brusse says: “With Hugh I had no worries. He won’t undertake something he has sincere concerns about. But we did come across things that were unexpected.” Such as the north-facing side wall. “You look at those walls and think they are solid brick. But there was only a skin of brick, then a core of rubble and mud, and a skin of brick on the other side. Such economy on the part of the Mariannhillers is understandable and I can see why they did it.”

But the wall was tilting at an angle and had become severely cracked. The foundation, which consisted of massed stone, lacked strength plus being susceptible to moisture variation. “One wondered how the heck, other than with pure faith, the building stayed upright,” says Brusse. The wall was dismantled brick by brick, a stable foundation constructed and the bricks relaid.

An especial feature of the restoration was the emphasis on the retention of original materials. “We tried to retain as much of the historic material as possible,” says Brusse. “You must retain at least 60%, otherwise it’s a Mickey Mouse restoration.”

A highlight is the retention of the original roofing materials. “Generally, in these sort of restorations, the old corrugated iron sheeting is replaced with pre-coated corrugated iron sheets,” says Brusse. “But over the years, I’ve become aware that the older corrugated iron is thicker.”

Bowman suggested the original sheeting be regalvanised and, according to Brusse, this turned out be more cost-effective.

“And they will last another 100 years quite easily.”

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