The restoration of the house of Windsor Castle: Britain's finest craftsmen, and $59 million, return the home of their monarch to its former glory.


WINDSOR, England -- Prince Charles said the sight of a fire-ravaged Windsor Castle "made his blood run cold."

His father, the Duke of Edinburgh, pondered the problems of rebuilding a priceless, uninsured home and said, "I felt that there was going to be a hell of a business trying to put it together again. I don't think anybody would have contemplated leaving it as a ruin."

But five years after a blaze swept through the heart of the royal family's favorite residence, Windsor Castle has re-emerged, rebuilt and restored beyond its former glory.

With a television special that features the comments from Charles and Prince Philip, a book, and yesterday's preview for the world's media, Britain's royal family is showing off the $59.2 million project that was completed under budget and ahead of schedule.

Britain's finest craftsmen and architects have mended, restored and in some cases refashioned the nine principal rooms and more than 100 others damaged in the Nov. 20, 1992, blaze.

And for Britain's royal family, the timing of the Windsor re-launch could not have been better.

The fire raged on the queen's 45th wedding anniversary and came to symbolize what she called her "annus horribilis." Most of the castle emerged unscathed as firefighters used 1.5 million gallons of water to extinguish the 15-hour fire.

Thursday, the queen and Philip will entertain guests during a 50th anniversary party inside the restored portion of the castle.

"This is the best wedding present Prince Philip and I could have had," the queen said last week in a speech to firefighters and project workers, according to the Royal Collection Trust Dickie Arbiter.

She termed the project "marvelous" and said she was "absolutely delighted with it all."

Even though the public won't get into the renovated areas until late next month, the reopening of the rooms is being used as part of a carefully managed plan to spruce up the Windsor image in the wake of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

The golden anniversary of the queen and Prince Philip will be marked this week with a gala concert, a public meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and a televised thanksgiving service in Westminster Abbey, site of the wedding. Many here still recall the queen's 1947 marriage as a joyous interlude during a post-war era of rationing and hardship. It also stands in contrast to the divorces of her three elder children.

But the royals are also trying to show that they are changing with the times.

A former top royal aide said during an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation that the family is considering ditching the Royal Train.

Simon Gimson, who headed the Palace Policy Unit, also said that abdication for Elizabeth has been ruled out. He added there is no thought of bypassing Charles and naming Prince William as the next sovereign.

But it's Windsor Castle that stands as a reminder of the royal family's hold over Britain.

Windsor is Europe's largest occupied castle, standing on a site chosen by William I in 1070. But for Elizabeth, the castle isn't just part of history -- it's her principal home, the place she was raised and where she lived during much of World War II.

She followed the restoration efforts carefully, with Philip heading the Restoration Committee and Charles heading the Design Committee. Her youngest child, Prince Edward, also played a role, producing a television special on the subject, "Windsor Restored."

"The reaction of anyone who has seen the rebuilt and restored rooms of Windsor Castle has been 'Wow!' " Edward said. "It really is breathtaking."

The cleanup and rehabilitation of Windsor was daunting.

Some 15,000 fragments of plaster were collected and placed in 2,000 breadbaskets. Debris was crammed into 7,000 trash cans.

With 78 miles of scaffolding, 10,000 delivery vehicles and 4,000 workers, the restorers carefully re-created elaborate rooms, including the lush Crimson and Green Drawing Rooms. The restorers also dried out the charred remains of the building, working from the roof downward.

"Everything we've done is the biggest this century," said Chris Watson, the project manager. "It was the biggest ever for gold leaf. It was the biggest ever for lead roofing. And it was the biggest medieval hammer beam roof structure."

The restoration work uncovered a medieval well, 17th century murals and 14th century timbers.

St. George's Hall, used to entertain visiting dignitaries, was restored to its former glory, with a magnificent Gothic ceiling hand-crafted from the green oak of 300 trees.

In what was formerly the royal family's private chapel, an inscribed stone tablet marks the spot where the fire started when a curtain was ignited by the heat of a light.

The octagonal chamber has been opened up into a bright anteroom that connects the new royal chapel to St. George's Hall.

Philip helped design six new stained glass windows in the new chapel. One shows a firefighter, while another depicts a workman saving a portrait.

For the royals, the restoration may have been a nuisance. But it was also a bargain.

Tourists who flocked to Windsor and the queen's London residence, Buckingham Palace, paid for 70 percent of the work. British taxpayers funded 30 percent, which came out of a government grant for the maintenance and upkeep of the royal palaces.

"We got good prices," Watson said. "Everyone wanted to do their bit at Windsor. For every craftsman, it was the pinnacle of his professional life. The castle has been here 1,000 years and it will be here another 1,000. People can show their children that they fixed this roof, this carpet. And then their children's children can point to those same pieces."

"The knee-jerk reaction is we couldn't find the craftsmen, that the skills had died out," Watson added. "Well, they haven't."

The castle remains uninsured. But officials don't seem to be taking many chances with fire, spending millions to prevent another blaze.

They also installed 2,000 fire extinguishers.

Pub Date: 11/18/97

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