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Project Profile


2005 Award of Merit

Dutch Reformed Church

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Project Title: Dutch Reformed Church

LocationGalle Fort, Galle, Sri Lanka

Size:353 square metres (floor area); 1,214 square metres (compound)

Cost: US$ 113,603

Responsible PartyArchitectural and Artefact Conservation and Units of the Central Cultural Fund

Heritage Architect: H,K Balachandra

Contractor: Central Cultural Fund

Date of Completion: October 2004

Project Synopsis

The town of Galle (also widely known as Galle Fort) is located on a promontory in the Bay of Galle on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka. An important port for international traders from as early as the second century AD, it was settled by the Portuguese in 1588 before coming under Dutch rule in the mid-seventeenth century. Galle Fort was a strategic Dutch trading centre until the late eighteenth century, when the British gained control of the colony.

The Dutch Reformed Church was built in 1755, following European building conventions but incorporating local techniques and materials. It is the oldest surviving Protestant church in Sri Lanka. Following local tradition, in which gifts are bestowed on the community following the birth of a child, the church was constructed as a gesture of gratitude for the safe birth of a daughter to the then military commander of Galle. The church served as the principal place of worship for the 500 or so Dutch families in the colony and for Sinhalese converts to Christianity.

The Dutch church was adapted for Anglican worship following the British East India Company’s occupation of Sri Lanka in 1796. This change resulted in various modifications to the building, including the repositioning of the seating and the insertion of stained glass windows in the west wall. As one of the largest remaining Dutch-period buildings, the church exerts a strong presence within the built fabric of the World Heritage-listed settlement of Galle. With its distinctive Baroque-profile gable ends and stark whitewash, the church and its surrounding graveyard provide a vivid reminder of the colonial history of Galle Fort.

Neglected for many years and subject to frequent assault by heavy gales, the building was in a state of decay prior to the project. Many of the roof tiles were missing, and the supporting timbers, including rafters and bracing elements, had collapsed. The ceiling also sagged, showing evidence of rot and failure. Within the church, the paint layers were flaking and had been discoloured by a layer of fungi. Other sections showed indications of moisture and surface loss. Furthermore, the church’s unique collection of period furniture was in poor condition due to lack of care and maintenance. The many timber hatchments and mural tablets showed evidence of deterioration due to microbiological growth and migrating salts. The corrosion of iron nails and oxidation of bronze fittings also contributed to the poor appearance of the interior features. Invasive trees threatened the exterior of the building. Tombstones were in a derelict state, with many toppled or in danger of falling and others piled up haphazardly. The grounds were neglected and obscured by shrubs and vines. In addition, the boundary walls surrounding the property were on the brink of collapse.

The Government of the Netherlands provided funding for the restoration project and also offered technical assistance for the conservation of the stained glass windows. Upon the completion of the project in 2004, Her Excellency Chandrika Kumaratunga, the then President of Sri Lanka, formally handed over the conserved church to the local authorities in the presence of the Dutch Ambassador to Sri Lanka. The present management body of the church maintains the property in accordance with the guidelines established by the Central Cultural Fund, which is a division of Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Culture and the Arts.

Conservation Approach

The conservation process for the church involved three distinct aspects: conservation of the building and its ancillary features; conservation of the furniture; and conservation of the grounds and tombstones. The main goal was to restore the building and its valuable furnishings into their former glory, ensuring the property’s continued religious function.

The Central Cultural Fund was responsible for overall management of the restoration project. An architectural conservation team handled the conservation of the building and the landscaping, while Walana Carpenters Society, an organization specialized in work of this nature, undertook restoration of the broken and decayed furniture. A murals and artefact conservation team handled the hatchments, tombstones, murals and other historic decorative features. 

Conservation of the building began with the repair of the roof, which entailed the partial replacement of the character-defining “Calicut” tiles on the roof. These are terracotta tiles in semi-circular form, noted for their colour retention. Workers attempted to match replacement pieces as closely as possible to the originals. Roof timbers were also repaired and, in some instances, replaced. As with the tiles, the timber replacements closely matched the originals, using a type of wood with a similar texture and character. Workers also repaired and painted the ceiling in its original blue colour.

The floor had originally been paved with hexagonal terracotta tiles, but during later interventions these were replaced with imitative cement tiles. To restore the original appearance, workers removed the cement flooring, replacing it with new terracotta tiles made to match the original design. Repairs to the walls required removing flaking paint and plaster and recoating with compatible lime plaster. Areas in which decorative or moulded plaster was cracked or damaged were consolidated with injections of hydraulic mortar.

The conservation of the stained glass windows posed a major challenge. This was a new aspect of conservation in Sri Lanka and there were no knowledgeable artisans available to carry out the work. Experts from the Netherlands therefore provided the required expertise. Working directly on site, stained-glass technicians provided the necessary experience and oversight, while also training local staff members in glass conservation. The project team found that the original doors and windows were still viable. The sashes of some windows had been damaged, however, and many of the decorative carvings were missing. To restore the function of the windows, workers replaced unstable timber frames and sashes, employing the same variety of wood as the original. They also repaired and replaced wood mouldings and other decorative features to match the existing ones.

A major part of the conservation effort focused on the furniture and decorative woodwork within the church. Workers restored wall hangings and interior furniture, returning missing elements to their original positions and refinishing surfaces to reinstate something of the original character of the pieces. Floorboards of the organ loft were replaced with new planks of a width and thickness similar to the original.

As part of the restoration of the property, all vegetation incompatible with the visual character of the church was removed. A new turf lawn was installed, as well as new gravel pathways. The boundary walls were repaired, with workers being careful to replicate both the materials and moulding profiles of the original walls. In cases where sections of the walls had failed, masons rebuilt them, again matching the originals.

The tombstones on the floor and the plaques fixed to the walls were restored along with the church’s decorative stonework. The highly decorative upper surfaces of the stonework had been worn due to abrasion and plant growth and invasive salts — a prolonged process that had resulted in the discolouration of the stone. All decorative stonework was cleaned using mechanical techniques and chemicals to remove dust, mould, flora, acids and insoluble salts. Where necessary, technicians inserted stainless steel rods as reinforcement to fix the crumbling stone. Mortar with crushed granite aggregate to match the stone was used to fill the gaps. The tombstones outside that had been piled up were arranged against the walls for better long-term protection.

Conservation and the Community

Prior to the restoration of the Dutch Reformed Church, the weekly service at the Church only had about eight worshippers. Following the restoration, attendance increased to about 50 congregants each week. Tourist numbers also increased. Tourists no longer come only to see the dilapidated tombstones, but now examine the rest of the church and its grounds. Following the December 2004 tsunami, the church played a significant role in assisting the community through its difficulties, its congregation providing emergency and secondary relief to those in need.

Quote from the Project Team

“Conservation of the Dutch Reformed Church was a unique pilot project to convey to the public how valuable these buildings can be, as they represent our history. It is hoped that the public will grasp the essence of this message and new trend of conservation will be set.”