The restoration of St. Peter’s Abbey to its former glory: more than half a century of restoration work and alterations
For more than a century the abbey served as an army barracks, when in 1950 the city started with the restoration of the building. This restoration campaign has been a long process that is still on-going.
The construction works in the 1950s and 1960s were quite drastic. Only those parts where the original character had disappeared or been lost were broken away or replaced. Priority was given to the cloister and the wing at Sint-Pietersplein. The chapter house had already been restored before 1958.
The once fabulous eighteenth-century library was beyond saving. From the ceiling painting two fragments were saved and the high hall was divided into two levels with a modern, sleek appearance. Then it was the turn of the west wing of the premises under the old refectory, as well as the kitchen. The eighteenth-century infirmary (the current World of Kina), the wine cellar and the attics were completed in the 1960s and 70s.
During the construction works several tombs were discovered in the corridors and in the chapter house. Only those of the highest rank, such as the abbots, were laid to rest in these tombs. In St. Peter's Abbey brick burial vaults with a figurative wall finish and mainly dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were discovered. On the lateral sides there were many cavalry scenes and depictions of the Madonna and Child, while the longitudinal sides were embellished with crosses, flowers or angels bearing incense burners. Occasionally we came across a patron saint.
In 1982 the construction of the garden with the incorporation of the ruins was completed. In 1986 it was the turn of the terrace. The old brewery on the Kantienberg was put into use in the 1990s under the name ‘Het Geuzenhuis’.
In the 1990's the restoration of the refectory wing began. The damaged ceiling paintings were removed panel by panel. The riskiest part of the operation was the removal of the concrete mezzanine floor that had been used for the barracks.
Various archaeological finds surfaced when the skeleton was being restored .The filling of niches and vault caps revealed beautiful fragments of a frieze of dragons and bunches of grapes in Avesnes Stone. These fifteenth-century sculpture fragments probably originated from the large fireplace in the refectory. They were reused as rubble filling in the refectory wing in about the middle of the eighteenth century.
On the west wall of the refectory interior as many as eighteen layers of paint were discovered. The oldest layer was the shadow of a very large piece of furniture. Moreover, we also found painted motifs such as a medallion, parchment work and fruit which were linked together with red ribbons. The paintings must have been done on the wall after the fifteenth and no later than the seventeenth century.
In the Year of Emperor Charles in 2000 the major Carolus exhibition was held in St. Peter’s Abbey. Incredibly valuable pieces were loaned for it. The exhibition was the international showpiece of this peak year. Consequently, extra efforts were made to approach the exhibition space in a professional manner. All the technical elements were replaced with exhibition lighting, and a climate control system was introduced so that not even the most demanding lenders could complain. The immense windows of the Library rooms could be darkened as well as the windows in the refectory. In 2001, St. Peter’s Abbey was the venue for the European Summits. The chapter house was equipped with armour plated glass. For the occasion the storage room on the southern corridor was provided with the necessary accommodation and the large attics received new sanitary facilities.