Merton Spire Once More Reaching Toward the Sky

June 6, 2007 -- The three-ton limestone Merton Spire, which has stood in the garden of Pavilion VI since 1927, was restored this spring after it was damaged in 2005 when a mini-tornado felled two maple trees in the garden, one of which landed on the spire, shattering part of it. The windstorm damaged about 30 trees in and around the Lawn, according to Richard Hopkins, landscape supervisor.

The spire was originally an ornament atop a buttress of a chapel,— a “15th century architectural element,” according to Brian Hogg, senior historic preservation officer at the University architect’s office. Its pedigree is confirmed by a plaque on the spire that reads “A pinnacle of Merton College Chapel Tower, erected 1415, presented to the University of Virginia, 1927, by Merton College, Oxford.”

The spire was placed in the Italian Garden, which had been designed by Warren Manning in the first decade of the 20th century as a link between the Lawn and the new hospital, according to landscape architect Mary Hughes. In 1965, a road that ran through the east gardens was closed, the serpentine walls were extended to the range, and a shade garden — the only one of the 10 gardens with a woodland theme — was designed around the spire.

“In the summertime, it was the one garden to which you could go that was cool,” Hughes said.
After the spire was damaged in the storm, the small pieces of the spire were brought to Hogg’s office and the large pieces were stored in a Facilities Management warehouse.

Mary A. Jablonski, owner of Jablonski Building Conservation, Inc. in New York City, was called in to advise the University on restoration.

“This is one of the more fun jobs we’ve done,” said Jablonski, who cited the complications of the restoration as part of the fun.

Jablonski and her team, which included conservators Jen Kearny, Helen Thomas and Sandy Chung, examined the spire and decided a new section would have to be carved to replace the shattered piece. The spire was made of Corallian Oolitic sandstone from the Headington Quarry at Oxford. Soft and porous, the Headington stone was used in the construction of much of Oxford — but the quarry had been closed for nearly a hundred years.

“So we did what England has had to do,” Jablonski said. “We replaced it with Clipsham Limestone.”

The University bought an 800-pound block of Clipsham limestone and shipped it to Old World Stone Ltd. in Ontario, Canada, for stonecutter John Bridges, who started his career as an apprentice stonemason in Oxford.

“He carved this beautiful piece and then we sandblasted it to age it like the rest of the spire,” Jablonski said. “He was very good about it, but I thought he was going to cry.”

The spire was reassembled, with the smaller broken piece reattached. A strengthener was added to the limestone. “We want it to be as supple as possible,” Jablonski said.

But even with the stone strengthener, Jablonski acknowledged “the spire will not last forever.” 
Signs of age are everywhere. Crockets, eight- to 12-inch-long sections carved to look like bent leaves, have worn down to nubs. Despite the wear and tear, Jablonski believes that the spire should remain outdoors, because that is where it was designed to be.

The spire rests on a concrete foundation. The soil was dug out around this foundation so no part of the spire touches the ground, and a drain was installed around the spire to keep the ground dry.

Jablonski’s team also cleaned several layers of wax off the spire. Hughes said the spire had apparently been repeatedly used for some form of ritual where candles were burned on it, leaving extensive wax deposits on the limestone.

“That’s no way to treat a 15th century artifact,” Hughes said. “It is the oldest thing on Grounds outside the museum collections.”