Ten years on from devastating Bury St Edmunds blaze – how Cupola House rose from the ashes
June 16, 2012, was a night which will be remembered vividly by many Bury St Edmunds residents: it was the night Cupola House burned down.
The town centre was buzzing and diners were enjoying their meals at the Strada Italian restaurant, in the Traverse.
But underneath the restaurant, an emergency was breaking out in the basement kitchen as fire took hold.
By 8.50pm the fire service was called and 20 staff and 100 customers were evacuated from the historic building – with 80 firefighters from across Suffolk and Norfolk battling to extinguish the blaze.
As word spread that one of the town’s historic buildings was on fire, scores of people gathered on the ground – abandoning their Saturday night plans to watch the sad demise of what was then a Strada Italian restaurant.
Onlookers gathered in the Traverse as the Grade I-listed 17th century Cupola House went up in smoke and its tower eventually fell.
The rear of the building collapsed into Skinner Street, while the flames were still burning days later.
Monique Rainey, of Tuddenham St Mary, was one of the diners evacuated. She said at the time: “It was scary the speed with which it all happened.”
Sara Bebbington, who had been in the newly-opened nearby Wetherspoon when she heard about the fire, said: “We looked up the Traverse and saw flames licking the roof and black smoke billowing from the top of the Cupola. It was heartbreaking.
“It wasn’t long before our worst fears came true – the tower collapsed. One of Bury town’s skyline buildings gone in a flash.”
Suffolk News sports editor Russell Claydon was one of the first journalists on the scene, having abandoned a boxing match in Sudbury after hearing about the inferno.
On arrival, he described a scene of ‘apocalyptic proportions’ as the famous landmark was ‘menacingly licked by flames and sending out a distress signal of thick plumes of black smoke’.
“A majestic building that had defined the individuality and beauty of our town had been lost and as some shed tears as others stared on, sobriety and disbelief clung to the air,” said Russell.
With firefighters battling the inferno, Seamans Building, of Thurston, was on the scene as flames still licked the building – helping to secure the site under the direction of structural engineers.
“We were contacted through structural engineers Richard Jackson Ltd and were in attendance with the fire service throughout the night to make the building safe,” said Seamans contracts manager David Hart, who was on the scene.
“Firefighters needed to enter the building but couldn’t have done so while the building was structurally unsound.”
Steven Reason, Seamans associate, went to the Traverse the next morning. “At one point the facade was expanding due to the heat of the fire,” said Steven.
“Seamans helped to remove a small strip from the front elevation to reduce the pressure, allowing them to save the front of the building.
“I don’t think there would have been much left if that hadn’t been done.
“We were down there while the firefighters finished their work – it took two to three days though before the fire was fully out.
“The rear of the building had collapsed in and there was just a heap of timbers, bricks and debris – it was almost reduced to a pile of rubble.”
Once the fire was extinguished an investigation was launched, when the remains of the building were trawled through to discover the cause of the blaze.
“It was almost like a crime scene so we needed to be very careful – they needed to find the cause of the fire before the evidence was destroyed,” said Steven.
In September 2012, a fire chief said the blaze started after a cook working in Strada’s basement kitchen accidentally misjudged the use of a safety blanket, fanning flames into the restaurant’s ventilation system which spread them to the building’s upper floors.
A Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service spokeswoman said at the conclusion of the fire investigation: “We have concluded that the fire at Cupola House, Bury St Edmunds, started accidentally in the basement kitchen of the building and then spread to the rest of the building initially via the kitchen ventilation system.”
By this time, Seamans had already constructed temporary scaffolding to protect what was left of Cupola House before the big clean-up.
This was achieved by suspending a skip from a crane and using cherry pickers to access the site from the air. Crews could then transfer debris into the skip without touching the floor.
However, the team was surprised by what was found beneath the foundations.
Ben Whatling, Seamans’ production director, said: “When conducting a risk investigation in the cellar we discovered a well under the floor and also a small room was uncovered.
“The building has been worked on significantly throughout the years, so there was a feeling you just didn’t know what you would find.”
Although the fire was an enormous shock for Bury, thoughts quickly turned to how to restore Cupola House to its former glory.
When Seamans won the restoration contract – using a blend of modern and traditional craft skills to resurrect the then Grade I-listed building – thus started years of painstaking planning alongside Purcell Architects, English Heritage, local authority building control and the project committee.
Ben said the high-profile job needed to be completed quickly, as people and businesses were negatively affected – shops closed as a result of the fire did not all re-open until November 2012, while the last residents of flats evacuated through the blaze did not return home until December that year.
“With a building like this, with such historical significance, we had to think hard about the reconstruction,” said Ben.
“The neighbouring flats had to be vacated following the fire, so everyone was keen to get the residents back home as soon as possible.”
As most of the rear of Cupola House had been destroyed, the engineering solution was for a steel frame to fit inside the fabric of what remained.
However, Seamans was determined to retain the building’s eccentric lines, typical of the era it was built, meaning its engineers had to deal with out-of-plumb angles, bows in the walls and wonky floors.
Ben said: “Due to the constraints of the site we had to get the steel in like a Meccano kit – you are over-laying a steel frame with the existing oak framework, some of which had warped over the years.
“This made it a very challenging job, making sure everything fitted together in a building that was hundreds of years old.”
For the interior, Seamans worked closely with Purcell Architects, using photographic records to plan the restoration.
Seamans contracted craftspeople to construct the detailed interior, including Church and Gooderham Ltd, of Earl Soham, which constructed the oak staircases, and master woodcrafter Rob Lewis, of Haughley, who created the building’s ornate carvings.
But the main event – and one the whole town was waiting for – was the installation of the new cupola.
Expert carpenter Bob Sharpe, of Seamans, was one of the team given the daunting task of recreating the cupola at the company’s workshop, using salvaged templates rescued from the rubble to replicate it as accurately as possible.
“It took more than three months to complete it,” said Bob.
“It was a great day when the crane lifted it up – a very satisfying sight to see.”
Ben said among the biggest challenges was the size and location of the building site: “Cupola House was a very small site with very poor access. I think we did everything we could to do it on a safe, sensible and productive way.
“The project received great community support and was a real team effort, with everyone from the council to building control helping to complete it.”
The building work was officially completed in August 2016.
Ben said it was one of the most challenging projects Seamans had faced, but the team relished the chance to be involved in such an important project – adding that although the building looks much like the Cupola House of old, its new steel frame would help to protect it for generations to come.
“We were really pleased with how it turned out – to think it was a pile of rubble when we started is remarkable,” he said.
“The project was a real team effort – a group of companies, local authorities and individuals working together to bring the building back to life.
“In restoring a building like Cupola House its history should be reflected in the building work. It should be the best quality craftmanship, sourced locally – which is what would have happened when it was built back in 1693.”
In 2017 Seamans won two LABC building excellence awards for its work on the project while in March 2018 it won heritage project of the year at the NFB awards.
About Cupola House
Cupola House was built by Thomas Macro in the 17th century as a way of showing his wealth to the rest of the townspeople.
Back then, with no shops in front of it, the house dominated the town centre.
Earlier in the 17th century the town had been ravaged by the Great Fire of Bury. The fire started on April 11, 1608, in Eastgate Street and lasted for three days, spreading up Northgate Street, into Looms Lane and across the town centre as far as Woolhall Street, destroying the market hall and market toll house.
Cupola House was sold by the Macro family in the mid-18th century and soon after was used to store and sell alcohol.
The building went into Greene King ownership in 1917, which used its large cellars for storage. Greene King sold Cupola House to Paul Romaine in 2002, when it underwent a one-year £1 million restoration and was taken off the buildings at risk register, re-opening as a restaurant.
“Most people who know Bury, who live in Bury or ever visited Bury, know the Cupola,” said Paul.