Straddling Whitecross Street Market and the historic Ironmonger Row Baths, the eighteenth century St Luke’s church towers authoritatively over Old Street. A silent sentinel overseeing the bustling community.
Yet step inside and its secrets are revealed.
In 15 years, the Grade I listed building has undergone a transformation to rival Lazarus; the site had been in ruin for forty years, a wasteland in sad contrast to the daily activities of life surrounding it.
In truth, the most remarkable part of the story of St Luke’s is that it still survives. Built on boggy ground in 1733, it needed repairs almost before it was finished, and despite regular work was eventually declared unsafe in 1959. The interior was gutted, the roof taken off, and the building left to the elements.
The church’s salvation came in 1996 when the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) – in partnership with UBS and with the help of a lottery grant – saw the perfect opportunity to transform it.
Seven years, £18m, and the reburial of 1,000 corpses later, LSO St Luke’s was christened: a state of the art complex for rehearsals and concerts that set out to inspire people through music.
“The church is a very focal point. People knew that it represented the area but it was just a shell when we took over, part of history rather than something thriving,” says Karen Cardy, St Luke’s Centre director.
“Now that area has been transformed it is very culturally rich and diverse.”
A plethora of star names have graced the 450 capacity Jerwood Hall, including Paul Simon, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and pianist Lang Lang.
But more important still are the local projects. St Luke’s gave a permanent home to LSO Discovery, an education programme now in its 21st year. This reaches over 60,000 people each year and includes varied music from a Gamelan group to digital technology workshops, all of which help bring the community together.
The community choir, made up exclusively of people who live or work within a mile, boasts 100 adults of all ages as well as three youth choirs, all of which were conducted by Gareth Malone until 2009.
Rosaline Agunro has sung in the choir since it began in 2003, and she is also a big part of why the LSO has been so successful at integrating the local community. Rosaline is a Community Ambassador, one of a dozen volunteers working with the orchestra to promote its messages and events.
“From my perspective,” says Fabienne Morris, a marketing manager at the LSO who works closely with the ambassadors, “they can do everything that I wish I had time to do. They know everything, they have relationships with local people already so they are more likely to say yes to them.”
This week St Luke’s celebrates 10 years under the LSO with a 12 day festival celebrating all aspects of the centre with anything from family open days to live Radio 3 lunchtime concerts.
Now for a new focus. Having worked first with the local community and then with east London boroughs, a scheme that culminated in 80 youngsters performing at the Olympic opening ceremony, Karen Cardy thinks that the next challenges lie in singing and the virtual world.
“We are pretty well full up in everything we do in Discovery so we have to find new ways to engage with people online,” she says.
And if the future of St Luke’s is anything like its short existence so far, it will continue a resurrection for the Baroque building so remarkable even Thomas would not doubt it.