History of LSO St Luke's
From derelict church to unique creative music hub
In the mid-1990s, the London Symphony Orchestra began searching for a new space to house our expanding education and community programme. An ideal venue was found in St Luke’s, a then derelict shell of an 18th-century church, just a short walk from our Barbican home.
The Church of St Luke’s
By Axel Burrough, the director at Levitt Bernstein in charge of the design of LSO St Luke’s
The Fifty New Churches Act of 1711 was intended to provide new churches in and around the burgeoning suburbs of the cities of London and Westminster. St Luke’s was one of just 12 that were ultimately built under the act. It was commissioned in 1727, and designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and John James.
It is possible that the ambitious design of the churches commissioned early on contributed to the subsequent plight of St Luke’s. The early years of the Act produced masterpieces such as Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, Spitalfields and St George’s, Bloomsbury, but the latter cost £26,000 to build, a figure spectacularly exceeded by the £40,000 needed for Thomas Archer’s St John’s, Smith Square. When St Luke’s was eventually commissioned in 1727, the Surveyors, John James and Nicholas Hawksmoor, were given a strict budget of £10,000.
The new church was consecrated and opened in 1733, but repairs were already being undertaken in 1734, and it was ‘thoroughly repaired’ in 1869, followed by underpinning in 1877, 1914 and 1951. The church had been built on marshy ground, and almost as soon as it was first completed, it suffered settlement problems. A dry summer in 1959 caused calamitous subsidence, leaving some columns hanging from the roof they should have been supporting. The building was declared unsafe, the roof removed (but the iconic Hawksmoor spire left in place), and the church abandoned.
The congregation of St Luke’s moved to the neighbouring church of St Giles’ Cripplegate in 1959. Read more about the amalgamation of the two parishes on the St Giles’ website
On top of the church there’s a brass weather vane, and people in the area thought it was a louse. That’s why they called it ‘Lousy St Luke’s’ … When they took it down, I had a look at it; it has a beautiful red eye. After all these years, the truth has come out – it’s a dragon.
John Mason, local resident
The weather wrought its destructive purpose, after many of the internal fittings found their way into other London churches. The fine organ, now in St Giles, Cripplegate, had attracted at least two well-known musicians to St Luke’s: Henry Smart was organist from 1844 to 1865, and much of his church music, including eight tunes in Hymns Ancient and Modern, continues in use today; and in the 1950’s Basil Ramsey, who was also editor of The Musical Times, arranged for the Church to be used by the BBC for recordings of organ recitals and concerts.
The authorship of the design of St Luke’s remains a subject of scholarly debate. Papers in Lambeth Palace show that the Commission Surveyors were asked jointly to produce a design. The similarity of the main body of the church and its lost interior to St George’s Hanover Square, would point to the hand of John James, but the stone obelisk (described as a ‘superlative conceit’ by today’s leading Hawksmoor scholar, Kerry Dowes) suggests an architectural imagination of Hawksmoor’s stature – his interest in obelisks is well known from the unexecuted design for St Giles-in-the-Fields and his work at Blenheim and Castle Howard.
The spire, incidentally, has revealed an interesting story. Records show that there was an ‘extra allowance in changing the scaffolds to flute the obelisque after it was erected’. So architects changed their minds then, too! On close inspection we discovered that the combination of erosion and fluting had greatly reduced the thickness of some of the outer layer of stone, resulting in much unexpected additional work.
Restorations with UBS
The LSO and UBS began the restoration project in 1996, when the building had no roof, a collapsing crypt and plants growing through the walls. At the time the English Heritage considered it one of England’s most important buildings at risk.
The restoration designs preserved many of the building’s heritage features – the original walks and window alcoves remain, the church clock was renovated and the flaming golden dragon restored to its rightful place at the top of the spire. All this is combined with a contemporary interior that supports cutting-edge music making and education activities, and the rehearsal and recording needs of a 21st-century orchestra.
An Architect’s-Eye View
By Axel Burrough, the director at Levitt Bernstein in charge of the design of LSO St Luke’s
Back in 1959, no one could possibly have predicted that the desperate plight of a beautiful church would become a huge opportunity for the LSO. The Church of St Luke’s in Old Street, just five minutes’ walk from the Barbican, has an extraordinary history. It was a unique project, using the ruined remains of a Grade 1 listed church to house an entirely novel set of functional requirements, so the provision of a much-needed facilitiy also saves a wonderful, significant old building for posterity. For Levitt Bernstein, the project offered a chance to develop the dramatic potential of juxtaposing new with old. Indeed it is a happy paradox that 40 years of dereliction and decay have increased the potential for the radical reordering now on site.
The church we entered in 1996 was in a deplorable state: no roof, a collapsing crypt and lots of interesting plants growing out of cracks and crevices! It was no wonder that English Heritage considered it one of England’s most important buildings at risk. The LSO’s interest provided hope and the advantage that they wanted to use the whole volume of the church without subdividing it. We developed a design that accentuates the single volume by employing four massive steel columns, which spread out like the branches of a tree to support the new roof, independent of the original walls. The columns describe a square within the rectangular plan, an oblique reference to a similar device in many of Hawksmoor’s church plans.
The Jerwood Hall reflects the building’s turbulent history. No attempt has been made to disguise the state of the original walls. Plaster, monuments and decoration have gone, but their traces remain. The new structure and galleries are an unashamedly modern intervention, so the layers of the building’s unique history will read like a palimpsest; and, by a happy coincidence, the rough texture of the walls is preferable acoustically to hard plaster.
The robust detailing enables the hall to satisfy a variety of functions, changing between education work, rehearsal, recording and recital through the use of retractable seating and a moveable rostra. It can also be hired out for corporate and private events, supported by an expanded crypt and basement containing further rooms and facilities.
By the beginning of 2002, the walls had been stabilised, the basement structure completed and the roof constructed. The fitting-out began and the only new construction externally, a pavilion in place of the original vestry, was clad in Portland stone. Late in 2002 the scaffolding was removed to reveal the repaired and cleaned stonework, and St Luke’s was once again ready to receive visitors. When the Orchestra first played in the building in January 2003 it was an emotional moment – the culmination of seven years’ hard work.’
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Through the Centuries
A commission to build 50 new churches is passed through parliament. Of these 50, only 11 will be built.
Building work begins on St Luke’s to a design by Nicholas Hawksmoor and John James.
The church of St Luke’s is consecrated and soon the parish grows to capacity.
The first of many restorations is carried out, less than a year after the church opened.
Henry Smart becomes organist at St Luke’s. He holds the position until 1865, leaving a lasting legacy to the English hymnal and English organ music.
The first major restorations take place due to subsistence, an issue that will eventually leave the church derelict.
Basil Ramsey, editor of various musical publications including The Musical Times and Choir and Organ, becomes organist at St Luke’s. He fosters a relationship with the BBC, inviting them to record concerts of organ music. The relationship with the BBC would be re-established when the site re-opened as LSO St Luke’s.
After an incredibly dry summer, the subsistence issues cause the ground to sink, leaving pillars hanging from rather than supporting the ceiling. This, combined with a declining inner-city population, causes St Luke’s to close.
The font and organ case are moved to St Giles-without-Cripplegate, and the reredos (large altarpiece) and altar rails are moved to St Andrews Holborn. The roof is removed for safety.
The Crypt is bricked up and the building is left derelict for almost 30 years.
With a grant from the English Heritage, the ruin of St Luke’s is partially stabilised. The LSO announce they are looking for a building to house their education programme, but St Luke’s is not yet considered an option.
St Luke’s is identified as the perfect place to house LSO Discovery, thanks to its proximity to the Barbican.
After stabilising the existing structure, work begins on transforming the dilapidated shell of St Luke’s into a versatile space for music-making.
The Oxford Archaeological Unit begin the exhumation of over 1000 burials in the crypt and churchyard.
With the walls stabilised and the basement structure completed, St Luke’s is nearly ready to open.
Work is complete. LSO St Luke’s opens to the public in January 2003.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Orchestra is able to produce music in a safe, socially-distanced space at LSO St Luke’s, sharing streamed concerts across the world in challenging times.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do you have a question about the history of LSO St Luke’s that isn’t answered on this page? Read our FAQs to delve deeper into our venue’s history.
Between July and December 2000 The Oxford Archaeological Unit undertook research work at St Luke’s Church on behalf of ABL Cultural Consulting Limited. This research included recording of funerary architecture, the crypt structure, and exhumation of all burials in the northern and southern churchyards, as well as clearance of all the burials in the crypt. A total of 1,052 burials were recorded and removed. Of that number, 336 individuals were named, and documentary research was carried out on these individuals during the post-excavation phase.
Before work could commence on renovating St Luke’s Church, historic building consultants Purcell Miller Triton were commissioned to investigate the historical and cultural significance of the Church and site, and provide a framework against which the renovation and any future maintenance and development could be planned, in order to protect it.