Sint-Rombouts restoration complete on day architect turns 80


The architect who started the restoration of Sint-Rombouts cathedral in Mechelen in 1985 celebrated its completion – and his 80th birthday – last month

‘Stone by stone’

Architect Jos Roosemont recently celebrated two important milestones on the same day: his 80th birthday and the completion of his life’s work. He was lead architect on the exterior restoration of Sint-Rombouts cathedral in Mechelen, which is finally finished after decades of painstaking labour.

The province of Antwerp, which is responsible for the upkeep of the cathedral, approved the restoration in 1975, but work on the exterior only commenced in 1985 under Roosemont and his colleague Luc Doms. The former had already been involved in the restoration of the church’s tower.

It was by chance that the young architect was hired to help with the restoration. “I had a general architectural training,” he recalls. “In that time, there was no specific training for architectural restoration. I was lucky in that, when I was appointed, there was already an architect here, Eugène Welch. That man had a fantastic feeling for all the details, for the ornament, for all the finishing touches. I learned a lot from him on the job.”

Craggy silhouette

Sint-Rombouts’ tower, a craggy silhouette that dominates Mechelen’s skyline, is included on the Unesco World Heritage list along with the other belfries in Flanders. Unlike most Flemish towns, in which the cathedral tower and belfry are separate buildings, Sint-Rombouts’ tower historically functioned as the city’s bell tower and watch tower.

In this respect, it enjoys a unique status apart from the cathedral and in fact falls under the city’s jurisdiction (unlike the rest of the cathedral).

The famous tower is also associated with the story that lends the residents of Mechelen their nickname: maneblussers (moon extinguishers). Late one night in 1687, a man leaving a pub saw smoke rising from the tower and raised the alarm. Soon the entire town was roused from their beds and a bucket brigade was organised to put out the flames.

Only, the good citizens soon realised that they had been fooled by the light of the full moon, reflecting off low clouds behind the tower to give the illusion of fire.

Construction on Sint-Rombouts cathedral – the seat of Belgium’s archbishop – began in the 13th century, probably replacing an older Romanesque church on the same site. Completed in 1451, it’s considered a prime example of the Brabantine Gothic style, with massive, round columns lining the nave and seven radiating chapels around the choir.

Rombout (Rumbold in English), the city’s patron saint, was an Irish missionary and martyr who probably lived in the seventh century. His relics are housed in the cathedral.

The 97-metre-high tower, begun in 1452, was originally planned to be 70 metres taller. Only seven metres of the spire was built due to rising costs and concerns about stability. What remains today is essentially just the base of the missing spire.

From the beginning, the tower was only weakly connected to the cathedral. That way, if it were to collapse, it wouldn’t take the rest of the edifice down.

Once everything was clean, we could see what was happening. Then we went stone by stone, deciding what to do

- Architect Jos Roosemont

The restoration of the tower, including both interior and exterior, lasted 30 years, from 1963 to 1993. It further involved the Herculean task of removing the historical carillon from the top of the tower and replacing it one level lower to make room for the installation of a new carillon in 1981.

Today, tourists can climb the 514 steps of the tower and enjoy panoramic views of the city from a glass skywalk, opened in 2009.

The restoration of the church exterior, meanwhile, began in 1985 with the roof and upper facades. It wasn’t until 2000 that additional subsidies were secured to continue with the restoration of the lower facades.

These were split up into sections and tackled in six phases, finishing with the chapels around the choir. Roosemont explains that the first task was cleaning the facades, which were black with soot.

“Once everything was clean, we could see what was happening. Then we went stone by stone, deciding what to do, what needs to be replaced, what needs to be chemically restored, surface by surface, all the way around.”

Over the years, Roosemont has seen both the approach to architectural restoration as well as the methods change and evolve. For one thing, he says, today there is more emphasis on conducting research and compiling a thorough file on the building’s history and condition before any work can begin.

Furthermore, restoring the original stonework is now more often about repairing rather than replacing. “The working method back then was, this isn’t a good stone, so we’re going to remove it and make a new one with the right shape,” he says. “Today, we’re only going to do that when the stone is in really bad shape – when it can no longer fulfil its function.”

‘Just like in the middle ages’

If a stone is still structurally sound but showing signs of deterioration, the restorers can touch it up using a modern moulding compound. “These artificial mortars are based on a mixture similar to the original stone, but weaker than the stone itself,” he explains. “That way, in the future, the restoration doesn’t remain behind when the stone is gone.”

The methods for working the stone have also changed. “In the early days, you had a big stone block, and everything that had to be removed was done with hand tools. All the work was done here at the foot of the church. The stonecutters and sculptors sat below, working on every stone, just like in the middle ages.”

Today, blocks of stone can be carved by robots, using technology developed in the auto industry. Unlike human workers, robots can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, thereby speeding up the process. However, the machine-cut blocks still have to go to a stonecutter for finishing by hand.

In the early days of the restoration, you had a big stone block, and everything that had to be removed was done with hand tools

- Jos Roosemont

The last step in the restoration process is impregnating the stone with a water-repellent sealant to protect it from further damage. Moreover, all of the cathedral’s stained-glass windows have been cleaned and reinstalled behind an outer layer of clear glass to protect them from the elements.

Restoring a monument like Sint-Rombouts cathedral is a unique and demanding challenge that involves many experts and skilled artisans. Despite his leadership role and decades of involvement, Roosemont is modest when assessing his contribution.

“It was all done in co-operation with my contractor and the foreman,” he says. “It was a group of people, and we always worked as a team.”

And yet, as he looks back on his long career, Jos Roosemont has reason to be proud. “The church, and all of Mechelen, are close to my heart,” he says. “I’m a real Mechelaar, a born Mechelaar.”

Photos, from top:
Jos Roosemont, provincial architect Amke Maes and provincial deputy Luk Lemmens (left to right) cut the cake in celebration of the completion of a 35-year project ©Koen Fasseur

The gothic Sint-Rombouts, seat of the archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels ©Stefan Dewickere

Some of the cathedral’s gargoyles were seen up close for the first time during the renovation, including this bizarre sculpture of an ape holding a woman ©Amke Maes