God Is In The Details

God Is In The Details

Shrouded in scaffolding for three years, St. Patrick’s Cathedral’s renovation is nearly complete. Initiated in 2006, renovations stalled due to the 2007 economic recession, but began again in earnest in 2012.

Why now? The Archdiocese of New York was concerned about stone falling off the aging structure. They commissioned New York’s Murphy Burnham & Buttrick (MBB) to spearhead the renovation with a mandate to repair, stabilize, and preserve.

Built in 1879, the original structure was designed by James Renwick Jr., one of 19th century America’s preeminent architects. MBB’s Jeffery Murphy, the renovation’s lead architect, stresses that the St. Patrick’s Cathedral project is "conservation, not restoration. "While restoration brings a building back to a specific style or time, conservation incorporates features from multiple time periods to display a full history of the space. There are features of the building that are now integral to its appearance but were not part of Renwick’s original design. In the 1940s, for example, archways made of Georgia marble were added to the Fifth Avenue entrances, lending a different character to the building’s exterior.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral is beloved locally and protected nationally: The cathedral, as well as the rectory, Lady Chapel, and Cardinal’s residence on the same block, are National Historic Landmarks, a designation reserved for iconic structures with national historical significance. Uncovering Renwick’s original style with only fragmentary visual evidence of the original structure was the project’s overarching challenge.

Commenting on the renovations, Monsignor Robert Ritchie referenced Cardinal Dolan’s opinion that "the conservation of St. Patrick’s Cathedral is about spiritual renewal." During renovations, the church continued to welcome tourists and worshippers.  Priests held the usual seven masses per day, calibrating their voices over the construction noise. The project is also a financial commitment for the Archdiocese, which estimates that interior and exterior renovations have cost $177 million so far.

Over nine years, approximately 140 designers and consultants, along with a team of 20 engineers, oversaw more than 30,000 interior and exterior repairs and modifications to the structure. Sustainability plays a major, and visible, role in the conservation process. The Archdiocese has invested in green energy, with ten geothermal wells planned for the site. The wells extend 2,200 feet underground, and will provide a 30 percent reduction in energy.

Raymond Pepi, founder and president of New York’s Building Conservation Associates (BCA), led the forensic analysis of the site. The team took an archival, rather than a decorative, approach to the conservation, matching current conditions as closely as possible to their historic origins. The team conducted materials analysis on hundreds of paint samples, scrutinizing each under a microscope to reveal the original color. Once determined, historic paint colors were calibrated again to be seen accurately under (much brighter) modern-day lighting. That level of analysis was applied to every piece of woodwork, plaster, stone, and glass. So far, around 150 masons, painters, carpenters, and other builders have labored on the project.

At times, there were over 100 people working at once on the cathedral. To coordinate the activity, MBB partner Mary Burnham said the team used Autodesk’s BIM 360 Field, an app that enables each team member to identify problems, flag repairs, suggest conservation methods, and allows the design team to follow up on the work as it was completed.

Transparency, inside and out, is a salient feature of new design elements. Monsignor Ritchie is emphatic that the Cathedral keep its doors open to all. New programmatic elements include sliding glass doors at the main entrance on Fifth Avenue so that, even in winter, the 9,000-pound double bronze doors flanking the entrance may remain open without letting in the cold.
Pollution, particularly candle soot, turned the ceiling and parts of the walls army green (low smoke candles are the norm going forward).

Pepi pointed out some of the quirks of the structure that the renovations highlight. St. Patrick’s, unlike textbook Gothic cathedrals, lacks flying buttresses. Renwick intended to create the ceiling in stone, but, when construction resumed post Civil War, stone was too expensive. The ceiling was done in plaster, instead. Lighter than stone, the concrete ceiling no longer required structural support from the flying buttresses. The renovations reveal the original tri-colored ceiling that Renwick cleverly designed to look like stone.

The interiors were curated to increase the space’s comfort and reduce visual clutter. Signs and statuary were repositioned to harmonize with the space. Preservationists restored the glass and glazing on 3,200–3,300 stained glass panels in situ. MBB vented the bottom of the windows to improve air circulation, and maintain a more even temperature around the delicate glass. While most of the glass would have been severely damaged by removal, approximately five to six percent of panels in need of intensive repair were removed and shipped to master glass restorer Ettore Christopher Botti of Botti Studios (Chicago).

The exterior received the same level of scrutiny and care. The renovation team scrubbed the facade with Rotec, a gentle (25 PSI) spray of glass and water, to reveal any damage to the building. The original structure, said Murphy, was supposed to look as if it was "poured into a mold and deposited on the sidewalk." Uneven aging of the stone and grout caused the exterior to appear more variegated than intended. The current, cleaned facade recaptures the 1879 look of the building.

BCA catalogued each repair and is in the process of preparing a maintenance manual so that today’s conservation will last well into tomorrow. As Pepi noted, “the day after you’ve finished the building, it starts to deteriorate immediately.”