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Chelsea Barracks chapel: Hodge ignores English Heritage again

Architecture Minister Margaret Hodge has gone against English Heritage (EH) advice for the second time in a week after refusing to list a chapel at the heart of the controversial Chelsea Barracks scheme

Just days after turning down a bid to list Birmingham’s 1970s Central Library, the minister has now rejected a Grade II listing for the 1863 Guards’ Chapel on the Chelsea Barracks site. The decision comes despite claims from EH that the ‘special building’ – the only surviving structure of the 1860s military complex – stood as ‘an important physical reminder of the military presence in Chelsea’ and should be given heritage protection.

But in a letter from the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), a spokesman said the Chapel did not ‘reach the level of interest of other listed examples’ and had lost most of its historical interest ‘when it was stripped of its contents’.

The decision removes a potential barrier to the redevelopment of the site by Qatari Diar, which is currently concluding its search for a new architectural team following the high-profile ousting of Richard Rogers from the scheme earlier this year.

A spokesperson for EH said: ‘A lack of statutory protection does bring in a greater element of doubt [about the future of the chapel].

‘The chapel is now an increasingly rare building type nationally.  Listing the chapel would have been a celebration of its special interest, not an obstacle to appropriate change.’

Earlier in the year EH was attacked for trying to list the building solely in reaction to the original development plans – and not on its merits – a charge the organisation strenuously denied.

Despite the government’s refusal to list the building, it is understood Qatari Diar has made ‘positive noises’ about retaining the chapel in its proposals.

Postscript

Intriguingly the government has decided to list a ‘virtually intact’ set of railings set on a granite plinth next to the chapel which date from a similar period.

English Heritage’s statement about the decision - in full

[We regret] that the Secretary of State has chosen to dismiss our comprehensive advice and not list the former Guards’ Chapel to Chelsea Barracks (1860-3) at grade ll. 

And while we welcome the endorsement of our advice that the impressive railings to the site be listed at grade ll, we are disappointed that the relationship and historic interest shared by the railings and the chapel – the only historic features of the site to survive – cannot both be celebrated by listing.

As we impressed in our advice, the chapel is now an increasingly rare building type nationally.  It offers an important physical reminder of the military presence in Chelsea, which dates back to Charles II’s time, and shows the improvements that were taking place within the Army in the wake of the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny.  Architecturally, the chapel is an unusual composition of Italian Romanesque style with Byzantine and Venetian Gothic elements, built in contrasting buff and red brick, with sparse but well detailed decoration.  Internally the Romanesque interior is memorable for its highly unusual tile wall panels commemorating Grenadier Guards who died in the 1880s.  The chapel is a special building and would, in our opinion, make a valuable contribution to any redevelopment of the site. It is eminently adaptable.

Proposals for the redevelopment of the site are currently the subject of a fundamental reconsideration, following the withdrawal, last summer, of applications for planning permission. We are extremely encouraged that the developers are currently consulting widely with local groups about the future of the site, and English Heritage look forward to playing a positive and encouraging role as proposals develop.

We are confident that a thoughtful yet creative approach that includes the retention and re-use of the chapel is entirely feasible. Indeed, we endorse Westminster City Council’s planning brief for the site which identifies the retention of the chapel for social and community uses as desirable. 

However, without the statutory protection that listing would afford, it is possible that decisions affecting the chapel and its future may not receive the careful consideration we would wish for.  Listing the chapel would have been a celebration of its special interest, not an obstacle to appropriate change.

We believe embracing the chapel and its significance will benefit any future scheme overall and serve as an important reminder of the site’s history.

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