When Liverpool’s Catholic community returned to the task of erecting a cathedral in 1930 under Archbishop Richard Downey using the site of the former Brownlow Hill Workhouse, they planned a church to dominate the cityscape even more than E W Pugin’s elegant Gothic design of 1853 at Everton would have done.
Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) designed a monster basilica in what he called his “Wrenaissance” style. Nearly as long, yet wider and higher than St Peter’s in Rome, its dome would have been half as tall again as the tower of the Anglican Cathedral, and significantly larger than the domes of St Peter’s or London’s St Paul’s. The Victoria Tower of Liverpool University, across the road on Brownlow Hill, would have fitted inside the entrance arch.
A vast architectural model, seventeen feet long and over eleven feet high, was built as an aid to fund-raising: it has survived and is displayed in the Museum of Liverpool at the Pier Head: [http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/conservation/departments/models/lutyens]
Lutyens cheerfully declared that the actual cathedral would take four hundred years to build. The foundation stone was laid in 1933 and the first mass said in the crypt in 1937. At the time of the 1941 Blitz, the sole remaining mason was obliged to down tools and work stopped entirely. The crypt, which had already consumed four million blue bricks, was partly adapted as an air-raid shelter, and otherwise left open to the weather.
After the war, a reduced version of Lutyens’ design was commissioned from Adrian Gilbert Scott, brother of the architect of the Anglican Cathedral, but dismissed as unworkable. The incomplete crypt was put to use for worship and as a parish centre.
What was built of Lutyens’ cathedral is an awesome space which hints at the scale of the unbuilt structure. Within, under what would have been the high altar, the tombs of some of the early archbishops are contained in a vault guarded by a seven-ton marble rolling stone, representing Christ’s tomb in Gethsemane.
I once saw the rolling stone roll. It’s operated by the sort of winch that’s still sometimes used for the house-tabs in school assembly halls. The sound of seven tons of marble rolling into a doorway is like nothing else.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.