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Keeping up appearances: taking care of Freemasons’ Hall

From building staircases and painting intricate floral plasterwork through to restoring corridors to their former glory, Stan, Damien and Stuart are part of a devoted team of craftsmen at Freemasons’ Hall who ensure that the building is preserved in all of its Art Deco grandeur. Luke Turton reports

Stan Johnstone gazes at the exquisitely polished doorways and columns that frame the Processional Corridor in London’s Freemasons’ Hall. ‘Everyone said I was mad when I did this – it was in a terrible state and had never been polished,’ he says with a mixture of pride and relief as he recalls the amount of effort he had to put into the job. ‘I was on my own and it took three months but it’s a lovely building and I’ve always tried to do the job that I believe it deserves.’

Stan is a French polisher and is part of a team of professionals who keep Freemasons’ Hall looking as pristine as it did when it was built 80 years ago. Not just the heart of the United Grand Lodge of England, the hall is a heritage site in itself. As well as being one of London’s most beloved landmarks, the Great Queen Street building is one of the finest Art Deco monuments in the country, and its operations team has the tricky task of keeping it in tip-top shape.

‘The upkeep of the building means looking after its structure and its parts, as well as keeping it up to date with current legislation,’ explains Roger Carter, Director of Special Projects (Technical) at Freemasons’ Hall. ‘It has individual requirements and we have specialist skills that would be difficult to obtain in normal circumstances. We have more than enough work here to keep these skilled craftsmen working full time.’

Freemasons’ Hall has invested a lot in its crop of craftsmen and is home to electricians, heating engineers, plumbers, painters and an upholsterer. ‘All of these people do things that require more than what would be expected of an ordinary builder,’ Roger says, pointing to the carpenters at the hall who, while more than capable of making standard repairs to the woodwork of the building, are also able to create new things – from furniture through to structural .

BUILT FROM SCRATCH

‘We repair all of the furniture; there are lots of original chairs that have been here since the 1930s. The joints dry out because they used animal glue and the tendons snap. Then you get project work like the goods entrance on the ground floor. We built that from scratch,’ says carpenter Damien Nolan of the impressive access entrance that seamlessly blends in with the rest of the hall. ‘I also made the staircase cladding for the charities, it was one of the first jobs I did. There was nothing there before and it all came from my head – there were no drawings and then I built it.’

While Damien will deploy modern carpentry techniques where the work will be hidden, old methods and materials will be used for anything visible, for example using old flat head screws rather than their contemporary equivalent. ‘When you’re repairing something old, you’re putting it back to the way it was, there’s no modern method of restoring it. If I have a broken scroll-arm chair, I’ve got to fit a new bit that will make it look like the original. That’s a lot of work cutting the piece out and matching the grain.’

Stuart Alloway has worked for five years as a painter at Freemasons’ Hall. With highly detailed, decorative paintwork throughout the building, Stuart admits to initially finding his job a little intimidating. ‘It was the first historical building that I’d worked on but getting up close, it wasn’t as daunting as I’d feared. It was quite a challenge but when I looked back at it a year later I thought it looked really good. To be part of that and to put your own stamp on it is a nice feeling – it’s a little bit of a buzz.’

Standing in the Prince Regent Room, Stuart peers up at the intricate floral plasterwork that patterns the ceiling. ‘We’re due to decorate this room at the end of the month and we’ve been given five weeks. Even with three of us in the painting team, that’s a lot of neck and back ache but I like it,’ he says. ‘I go back and look at the jobs I’ve done and have a good feeling. We’ve recently talked over a five-year plan that will touch all parts of the building. They’re looking for us to do it all in time for the tricentenary in 2017. It’s going to be a very busy period for us, but it’s good to be working.’

Freemasons’ Hall is particularly proud of its French polishers who employ an intensive technique that achieves a high shine and finish on wood. ‘These skills are very hard to obtain,’ says Roger Carter. ‘Our French polishers are highly skilled – one’s a real artist – and we’ve had contractors in who haven’t always produced the standard we expect.’

ARTISTS AT WORK

The artist Roger is no doubt referring to is Stan Johnstone, who is retiring next year after working at the hall for 12 years. His trolley is filled with different shades of shellac, from a deep garnet through orange to pale yellow, which he can apply to wood using a rubbing pad lubricated with oil. Stan is passing his knowledge onto his replacement Michael as he makes his way methodically around the corridors, lodges and meeting rooms that make up the hall, repairing 
and maintaining its surfaces as he goes.

‘Polishing is all about colouring and you can’t get it out of a can. Whatever colour we use, we create ourselves. When we do repairs, a lot of it is about getting that colour so you lose the scratch. The wood soaks up the oils and you’re building it up in order to get the shine,’ explains Stan. ‘We take pride in it and I’ve enjoyed my time here. When I arrived it was in a bit of a state and the lodge rooms still need a bit of work, but what we’re trying to do is to bring the building back to its former glory. I hope what I’m passing on is a craft.’

Letters to the editor – No. 20 Winter 2012

 

Running out of time

 

Sir,

 

I refer to your article ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ in the autumn issue. It gave real insight into the interior of Grand Lodge and the way it is being preserved and returned to its original condition. As I read the article I thought how different it is to the building I have attended for the past 45 years. Our temple is almost 200 years old and in a very bad state of repair, with water, roof and ceiling damage and quotations out of our range. The two lodges that meet there have only raised about half the cost for one small roof repair. The cold, unsatisfactory environment means some brethren will not attend and there is a subsequent loss of dues and charities. I fear that without help in five years’ time both lodges will cease to exist and the Craft will be left with a derelict building. I am sure we are not alone, yet letting lodges fail is killing the goose that lays the golden egg and we need help before it is too late.

Peter Brake, Castlemartin Lodge, No. 1748, Pembroke Dock, Pembrokeshire