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Ronald Sims

RONALD Sims, the distinguished ecclesiastical architect whose death aged 80 brings an end to a distinctive era of 20th century church building, was still designing churches, church extensions and the re-ordering of church interiors up until the day he died.

He was born in Hull, his father a baker who moved to York where he set up the Tea Time Shop in Mill Lane Heworth.

Ron, as he was known to almost everyone, attended Nunthorpe Grammar School, and while a pupil there met Margaret Powell whom he married in 1947. A marriage which was to last for 51 years until she died in 1998.

From Nunthorpe he went to the famous Leeds School of Art, where his studies were interrupted by National Service.

Commissioned as an officer in the Royal Engineers, he was put in charge of a major building project for the military in Keil, Germany, and on his return to Leeds he qualified as an architect in 1952, being named Student of the Year. He then joined the practice of George Pace, the celebrated ecclesiastical architect based in York.

In 1975 he inherited the practice when Pace died unexpectedly, thus becoming successor to one of the most significant British church architects of the mid-20th century. George Pace had created what was probably one of the largest ecclesiastical practices in Europe, responsible for approximately 700 churches, including St George's Chapel, Windsor, and 13 cathedrals, among them Durham, Southwark, Liverpool, Chester, Llandaf, Lichfield and Newcastle.

Ron Sims proved to be a worthy heir, a fact recognised in 1999 when the Archbishop of Canterbury awarded him a Lambeth Degree for his outstanding contribution to Church building, an honour of which he was enormously proud.

The style he inherited was bold and immediately identifiable - considered unattractive and difficult by critics who prefer their churches to be less challenging. It combined a sophisticated modernism with a surprising, and perhaps unexpected respect for tradition and for the arts and crafts movement. While controversial, it also made wonderfully imaginative use of materials, and superb craftsmanship.

That Ron Sims, like Pace before him, should have made a special point of cultivating excellent stone masons, woodworkers, metal workers in lead and iron, and leaded glaziers was not, therefore, surprising. He worked with many of the same craftsmen for 40 years or more.

His own work often made surprising use of space, and he gradually softened the style for which the practice had become known. His work became more relaxed and entertaining and made striking use of colour which was sometimes considered outrageous. His colour scheme for the chancel ceiling of Holy Trinity in Hull, for example, is extraordinary – very courageous and with a tremendous sense of fun. His ironwork is always especially characteristic, and one of his last works at Chester Cathedral was the glorious ironwork screens for the retail and entrance area.

He designed the Chapter House at Southwark Cathedral which is now an exhibition centre, and the startling interior of St Mary's in Putney which had been completely gutted by fire. He entirely transformed the building, introducing quantities of cleverly designed modern steel work, and while some were shocked by his radical approach, others found it an exhilarating and refreshing approach to an Anglican interior.

He did something similar at Heslington Church near York University. On the outside it is still a demure Victorian estate church, and inside he brought about a startling transformation. Initially it was controversial, but many people now recognise in it a sort of muscular lyricism, full of surprises. Springing surprises was one of Ron's characteristics.

He was a devout Christian with a huge design ability and real flair, and he was very prolific – the north of England is covered with examples of his work. One of the very last examples, a western extension to Romanby Church, Northallerton, which was completed just this summer, is a minor masterpiece. St James is a pretty 19th century church to which he added what is virtually a ' toy fort' at the west end. It is harmonious, original and very witty, and immediately recognisable to anyone who knows his work.

He was a highly valued member of the Diocesan Advisory Committee on which he sat for the best part of 25 years, and his experience will be difficult to replace.

Suspicious of computers, he was one of the last surviving architects to draw all his designs with a pencil, and colour them in by hand,

Locally Ron served on the York Civic Trust for many years, was a founder member of York Ebor Round Table, the founding chairman of York 41 club and an active member of York Rotary until he died.

He was a photographer – initially developing and printing his pictures – a dedicated bird watcher, a patron of the arts, a keen gardener, a gifted pianist, and he loved modern jazz. He was an enthusiastic member of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, he supported York Rugby League for 50 years and York City, for which he designed the David Longhurst stand and much of the main stand.

No one will ever forget Ron's achievements in redefining the concept of punctuality with the help of his ever more powerful but equally adored sports cars.

With his natty goatee beard Ron Sims was a snappy retro-dresser, usually seen in a knitted tie and suedes.

He was also a tough Yorkshire "Tyke". Many people fell out with him at least once because of his refusal to compromise, but he was widely respected for his integrity. His company was much enjoyed, and there are many churchwardens and vicars who sustained their relationship with him for 30-40 years, despite occasional fallings-out. He loved good food and wine, and was famously supportive of his colleagues and his staff.

Ron Sims is survived by his sons John, Alan and Mark, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

 
 
 

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