Wednesday, June 21


When the famed St. Paul's Cathedral burned down in the great London fire of 1666, King Charles II appointed Christopher Wren chief architect of the rebuilding project. Although he had no formal training as an architect, Wren was a genius who contributed to many sciences and built several public works. Wren's simple and elegant proposals were fiercely contested by a royal oversight committee which countered with a graceless alternative design.

Wren, a patient, practical man, agreed to the committee's plan--with the stipulation that he be allowed to make such modifications as would prove necessary during the actual construction. He modified continuously with the result that the finished work was almost identical to his own original design--a fortunate turn of events in any case: the completed building is one of European ecclesiastical architecture’s greatest achievements. Of course, Wren’s wry machinations hardly endeared him to the committee—despite his obvious brilliance, they determined to remove from consideration for any future royal commissions.

As a result of all this controversy, only a handful of official onlookers were present to observe as the first stone was lowered deep into earth overlooking the Thames River and set in place by Thomas Strong, a master mason. There was no special service. There was no fanfare. There was no dedicatory speech. There was no city-wide ceremony. It was almost as if a warehouse or even a theater was being constructed, not the city’s cathedral.

Nevertheless, Wren’s project was imminently successful. Few cathedrals are built in a lifetime but Wren was able to complete the project in just 35 years. Interestingly, when he first began to lay out on the floor of the reconstructed cathedral the shape of his proposed dome, he called a workman to bring him a bit of stone. The workman grabbed the first piece that came to hand. Inscribed on it in Latin was the word, Resurgam: "May I Rise Again." St. Paul's did indeed rise--and it rose swiftly.

To Wren, a staunch Protestant, the preaching of the Gospel was the primary function of a church. As a result, he designed the interior so that the pulpit would be the center of attention. He forbade his workmen to curse on the project, reminding them, on pain of dismissal, that they were engaged in a holy work. After his death Christopher Wren was entombed within the Cathedral. On his commemoration stone is written, Si monumentum requiris, circumspice: "If you would see his monument, look around."

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