WINDSOR, England -- The fire began the morning of Nov. 20, 1992, and burned for 15 hours, flames devouring grand drawing rooms and servants' quarters, while panic-stricken royals and commoners carted away leather-bound books, antique sofas and red velvet chairs.
By the time it ended, after firefighters poured more than 1.5 million gallons of water on turrets and roofs that had been built to last centuries, the northeast corner of Windsor Castle lay a smoldering ruin.
Now, the castle is still in the process of being restored. As tens of thousands of tourists troop through the principal home of Queen Elizabeth II, hard-hatted workers covered in dust climb scaffolds that extend three stories up. They are rebuilding, mostly by hand rather than machine, ceilings nearly large enough to shelter a football field.
"The challenge," says Alan Frost, one of the lead architects, "is that this is the largest occupied castle in the world.
First constructed as a simple fortress in the age of William the Conqueror, more than 900 years ago, Windsor Castle has been transformed through the centuries by fires, restorations and the stylistic whims of kings and queens.
The design being used in this latest restoration has been derided by some as "gothic horror," while others applaud the royals for maintaining traditional architectural elements. Whatever one's opinion of the work, it is on an indisputably enormous scale that has brought more than 150 artisans to the site. Joiners put together a sweeping oak-beamed roof. Plasterers delicately re-create from photos rococo fretwork and cornices.
Great Kitchen is bare
The Great Kitchen, a medieval hall that can seat a few hundred people, is stripped bare. Scaffolding fills St. George's Hall. Exposed pipes and electrical wires crawl up walls in barren stairwells near the Green Drawing Room. The damaged area, which extends several hundred yards, continues to dry out.
"I must admit that it was very upsetting the day of the fire," says David Bacon, 47, a construction foreman who was working at the castle when the fire ignited.
Now, the damaged section of the castle is coming back to life, and Bacon is thrilled: "It's a good place to work."
The castle and the restoration -- due to be complete in 1998 -- say a lot about modern Britain and its relationship to the royals. Windsor Castle -- with its familiar battlements, turrets and towers dominating the 13-acre site -- can still provoke a sense of awe. But the castle's inhabitants have long since lost favor with many Britons.
When Windsor Castle burned in 1992, it was a symbol of Queen Elizabeth II's horrible year, coming on the heels of her children's highly publicized marital woes. The outcry against the royals was so great that the queen was forced to raise 70 percent of the money for the castle's $60 million restoration by opening the gates of London's Buckingham Palace to fee-paying tourists. The other 30 percent was provided by the Department of National Heritage.
To tourists, British royalty still represents glamour. Lying 25 miles west of London, Windsor's crowded streets echo with the sounds of French, Italian, German, Japanese and American English. Across from the palace walls, tea rooms fight for the lunch trade with fast-food chains like McDonald's, Burger King and Pizza Hut.
The crowds eventually make their way to the castle to gape at the plush red carpets, gilded ceilings, master paintings, tapestries and medieval weaponry acquired by the royals. The tourists seek to reach out and touch history, to walk corridors paced by Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II, to stare at Henry VIII's massive suit of armor.
When William the Conqueror began work on the original fortress in 1070, life wasn't as grand. The castle, a wooden structure on a hill, was one link in a chain of royal camps placed a day's ride from London.
Stone towers added
A century later, Henry II tore down most of the original structure, spruced up the living quarters and added stone towers to the perimeter walls.
Successive sovereigns put their stamp on the property just as homeowners do in fixing up a handyman's special. The castle stretched like a figure eight, with a Lower Ward and an Upper Ward connected with the Stone Round Tower.
Some of the royals, like Henry II in the 12th century, fortified the castle to repel potential adversaries. Others, like Edward III in the 14th century, added apartments and carved out the comforts of a grand, if drafty palace. Medieval Windsor survives in St. George's Chapel, the final resting place of 10 sovereigns.
Queen Victoria, who came to be known as the Widow of Windsor, created a memorial chapel with gold mosaic and inlaid for her beloved husband, Albert.
For Queen Elizabeth, Windsor has long been a refuge, providing a home during much of World War II.
The queen still resides at Windsor in April and during the Ascot horse-racing week. She also escapes to the castle on weekends, and, if she chooses, can look across the River Thames to the playing fields of Eton College, where her eldest grandson, Prince William, is a student.
After the fire, 50 archaeologists combed through rubble that was 4 feet deep and spread across 1 1/2 acres, looking for little bits of plaster and wood, which they then handed to the restorers like prospectors forking over gold nuggets.
For the archaeologists and the architects, the fire produced insights into the castle, as artifacts and decorations that had been painted and plastered over through the centuries were uncovered. A 14th-century roof over the Great Kitchen was discovered and restored. A well, some 140 feet deep and back-filled, was found. A medieval cesspool was found and analyzed, revealing 15 types of meat and fish remains and 30 different fruits and vegetables.
Were any deep, dark royal secrets unearthed?
No skeletons found
"We didn't find any skeletons," says Chris Watson, a construction firm project manager.
But the restoration team couldn't avert controversy. Critics savaged the decision to restore most of the rooms to their early 19th-century style. Coming in for heavy criticism was the decision to build a higher, more pointed ceiling in St. George's Hall, where the Knights of the Garter, Britain's oldest order of chivalry, traditionally meet.
Somehow, though, the controversy melts away the closer one gets to St. George's Hall. Nine of the 14 trusses are in place, as seven carpenters use planes, chisels and mallets to carve the pieces from newly harvested English oak.
"It's a nice thought to think you're working for the queen," says Roger Farr, a carpenter who needs three days to create and fit each joint. "But this work I'm doing is interesting to me. This is traditional woodwork, and this is the way it should be done."
It's the kind of work that should last for centuries.
Pub Date: 5/24/96