St Fagans National Museum of History, an open air museum on the outskirts of Cardiff, is to rebuild, brick by brick, a historic Welsh pub once destined to be demolished.
The Vulcan Hotel was first built on Adam Street in the centre of Cardiff in the 1830s. But it was earmarked for closure shortly after the global financial crisis of 2008. With property developers circling, a grassroots campaign to get the pub added to the UK’s National Heritage List, aided by the actor Rhys Ifans and Manic Street Preachers’ vocalist James Dean Bradfield, was launched. Although the effort ultimately failed, public pressure led The Vulcan’s landlords to agree to donate the building to St Fagans.
The museum is now rebuilding the pub on its own grounds. The first pints are expected to be pulled in 2024.
St Fagans is part of the National Museums of Wales, which won The Art Fund’s Museum of the Year award in 2019. It is home to more than 40 different historic buildings from across Wales, each of which has been disassembled, transported and re-built on the museums’s grounds. The buildings on show tell the story of Welsh history from the pre-Roman era through to the twentieth century, with 17 gaining listed status.
The Vulcan Hotel was originally built to serve the community that built Cardiff’s East Bute dock. When the pub finally closed its doors to the public in 2012, the museum completed a survey of the building before disassembling its interiors and facade, placing each element in storage.
Dafydd Wiliam is the principal curator of historic buildings at St Fagans, and has been in charge of the rebuilding project of The Vulcan Hotel. The building, he tells The Art Newspaper, is layered with history. “Pubs are very important cultural centres. They act as centres of community life,” Wiliam says. “We’ve always wanted a pub at the museum.”
“We were fortunate enough to interview a woman who was born in The Vulcan in 1915,” Wiliam says. “She told us what the building looked like when she was a child, what kind of customers used it and the details about the community surrounding that.”
The Vulcan Hotel was renovated in 1915, receiving a distinctive facade that became familiar to generations of Cardiff drinkers.
“In 1915, Cardiff was a hugely successful coal port,” Wiliam says. “The year before, in 1914, Cardiff exported the most coal ever; about 20 million tonnes. This was during the First World War. So the pub has a lot to say about this period of history, about Cardiff as a city and about the community surrounding the building at this time.”
Although some of the tiles on the pub’s facade were too damaged to salvage, the original manufacturer, who is based in Shropshire, is still in business. Miraculously, the manufacturer still possessed the wooden moulds used to create the tiles. “We commissioned a whole new set,” says Wiliam.
The mixture of original and new continues throughout the interior, too. “We were taking down a partition wall and behind the plasterboard was the original wallpaper,” he says. “It was thick-grained and covered in a layer of nicotine.
“The original gents urinals from 1915 has also survived,” he says. “They are now being restored so they can go back in, ready to carry out their duty.”