TOMORROW is Augustus Pugin’s 200th birthday. The great architect was born on March 1, 1812.
Pugin pioneered the 19th-century revival of Gothic architecture. His best-known work today is probably the clock tower of Big Ben at the Palace of Westminster. It was the last building he designed before his descent into madness and his early death at the age of 40.
But you don’t have to go that far to see his work – there’s an example in St Ives. Which would have surprised Pugin, because he built it in Cambridge!
In 1843 he designed St Andrew’s Catholic Church, a modest chapel in a Cambridge back street. Funnily enough, he didn’t like the building and said that he wished the earth would open up and swallow it. But others have called it Pugin’s Little Gem.
In any case the rapid growth of the Catholic congregation in Cambridge soon made it redundant. In the 1880s the present-day Catholic Church was built nearby, an enormous edifice in a prominent position and with a spire that can be seen for miles.
That left Cambridge with a spare church – and luckily St Ives needed one. The St Ives Catholics worshipped in a small wooden building in East Street. So civil engineer George Pauling bought Pugin’s left-over church for £1,000.
That was a lot of money in those days, but dwarfed by the £70,000 spent on the new church that replaced it. I expect churches are like cars, their value plummets as soon as you start using them.
Pugin’s church was carefully dismantled and taken to St Ives by barge. It was re-erected in Needingworth Road and opened in July 1902.
A few changes were made to Pugin’s original design, with an upper row of windows added to make it lighter inside. It was also rebuilt backwards! For some reason the altar faces west instead of the more usual east.
Since then a presbytery has been built next door for the priest to live in. An extension was added in 1978 and a church hall in 2001.
Pugin’s Little Gem still hasn’t got a tower though. So if MPs ever decide they want to sell Big Ben (it won’t be the first thing they’ve put up for sale) perhaps we can make them an offer.