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02.01.2013
Divine Intervention
New York's threatened 1840s East Village St. Brigid's Church reanimated by preservation, new congregation.
Courtesy Acheson Doyle Partners Architects

St. Brigid’s Church, once crumbling and on the brink of demolition, opened its doors this week to a new congregation after more than four years of extensive renovations. At a time when shuttered churches often fall into the hands of developers and then turned into condos, this renovation deviates from recent trends and returns the church back to its original function.

The building, constructed in the mid-1840s by Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine, is believed to be the oldest standing church of architect Patrick Keely. In later years, the structure began to deteriorate, and by 2001, the archdiocese decided to close the church after the east wall pulled back and eventually detached from the north wall of the building. St. Brigid’s was slated for demolition until an anonymous donor stepped in and gave a $20 million gift to save the church. A new parish, St. Emeric’s, has moved into the historic building, and the church is now called St. Brigid-St.Emeric.

The project exemplifies a less traditional approach to historic preservation. Due to extensive alteration, the building was never given landmark status, which enabled Acheson Doyle Partners Architects, the firm leading the renovation, to preserve the most critical parts of the structure that capture the original aesthetic and feel of St. Brigid’s, while not being bound to replicate all its exterior features exactly.

 
Nicole Anderson / AN
 

“We did not have to go through a formal Landmarks Preservation Commission review process. However, the design and construction team still considered the church to be an important historic building in the sense that it is one of the earliest known Patrick Keely churches and the genesis of some of his later design vocabulary and techniques can be found here,” said architect Matthew Barhydt who worked on the team of Michael F. Doyle, the Principal in Charge, at Acheson Doyle.

By the time the architects arrived, the church required substantial rebuilding from the foundation up to the roof. Water infiltration through the exterior stucco had caused significant structural damage to the north wall and necessitated a complete reconstruction. The church, built over a swamp, was flooded a number of time times over the years, which led to the deterioration of the wood pilings supporting the stone foundation structure. These structural failures are what Barhydt says resulted in the church being “declared unsafe and closed.”

Nicole Anderson / AN
 

One of the firm’s first crucial steps was to secure the foundation by employing a structural reinforcement method called “underpinning,” which involved cutting back each wood pile and then replacing it with a concrete filled steel post.

Beneath layers and layers of paint, Doyle and his team uncovered original stenciling and writings on the east wall, which they restored “so the new congregants have some sense of the intricacies and beauty of the original designs.” New stained glass panels were sourced from the shuttered St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Harlem and a warehouse facility in Staten Island where the Archdiocese salvages stained glass from his properties. Some stained glass from the original panels were saved and integrated into larger panels on the east and west walls.

The renovation—a patchwork of historic preservation, rebuilding, and thoughtful updates—accomplished what Acheson Doyle Partners Architects set out to do: “To add modern technologies, but bring it back to its roots,” said James Black, project architect.

Nicole Anderson