A firebomb, courtesy of Adolf Hitler, burned the entire church - except those ancient Portland limestone building blocks.
British workmen etched a number into each stone as they dismantled the ruins of St. Mary the Virgin Aldermanbury Church in London. They etched the numbers and boxed the stones before the long ocean and land trip to a small Missouri town 20 miles east of Columbia.
Sir Winston Churchill had delivered an important message to the postwar world at Westminster College’s commencement in 1946. President Harry Truman endorsed Churchill’s plea for world peace by introducing him on that occasion. To commemorate the war’s end and Churchill’s plea for peace, the idea of bringing the ruins of a war-damaged church generated the necessary support. St. Mary the Virgin Aldermanbury, designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the 17th century, was chosen.
Employees of the John Epple Construction Co. of Columbia prepared an exceptionally strong foundation - a below-ground, hollow one - that would contain a museum and also would support the rebuilt church.
Eris Lytle, head stone mason, studied the plans at night and improved damaged stones as needed by working from dawn to dusk. It was a labor of love.
My husband, Chub, and I often drove to Fulton to follow the progress of rebuilding the beautiful St. Mary’s church Lytle was our brother-in-law.
Those 7,000 Portland limestone blocks from an ancient quarry on Portland Bill in southern England had survived two fires: the Great Fire of London and the World War II fire started by firebombs.
When the stones arrived on the Westminster campus, the numbers had been mixed en route during repacking.
A 2-acre open space was used to spread them out, and one workman had time for nothing but hunting stones.
Each one had to be placed in exactly the same row and in exactly the same relative position in that row - plus this: The fellow, hunting for No. 509 W - west - found 509 N, 509 E and 509 S, as well the one for west!
Another distraction was that masons had to work with numbers in reverse: No. 1 was at the top. That’s pretty obvious to us, but to the masons - take their word for it - that was the most confusing part.
Lytle, studying the plans, said, "It started out like any other job, but soon I realized that there was no structure like this anywhere on this side of the Atlantic Ocean."
He bought books about Sir Christopher Wren, who, more mathematician than architect, had designed St. Paul’s Cathedral and 52 other churches, including St. Mary’s. The more Lytle and the others knew about Wren, the more they appreciated Portland limestone and mathematician/architect Wren.
Lytle had a keen mind. He made two trips to England - one trip was to receive acclaim from the London Times and others, and the other trip was a longer tour that included a number of Wren’s other buildings. Lytle spent hours in St. Paul’s Cathedral, studying the arches and general construction features.
I accompanied him down the bare stone stairway there to Wren’s burial crypt. There we read part of the 1723 Latin inscription: "And if it is a monument you seek, look around you."
When Lytle was 95, he had the flu for two days and then passed away quietly. Of course we celebrated his life in his beloved St. Mary the Virgin Aldermanbury Church on the Westminster College campus.
That day, the Rev. Dennis Swearngin reminded us, "And if it is a monument you seek for Eris Lytle, look around you."
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