Pictorial> Conservation work at New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral is finally (almost) complete

Architecture East Interiors News Preservation Technology
Cleaning the Cathedral's exterior (Courtesy Murphy Burnham & Buttrick)

Cleaning the Cathedral’s exterior (Courtesy Murphy Burnham & Buttrick)

Shrouded in scaffolding for three years, renovations on St. Patrick’s Cathedral are nearly complete. Initiated in 2006, renovations stalled due to the 2007 economic recession, but began again in earnest in 2012. Pope Francis’ upcoming New York visit advanced the project timeline.

Interior buttress and ceiling detail (Courtesy Murphy Burnham & Buttrick)

Interior buttress and ceiling detail (Courtesy MBB)

The Archdiocese of New York commissioned Murphy Burnham & Buttrick to spearhead the renovation. Built in 1879, the original structure was designed by James Renwick, Jr., one of 19th century America’s preeminent architects. Jeffery Murphy, the renovation’s lead architect, stresses that St. Patrick’s Cathedral is “conservation, not restoration.” While restoration brings a building back to a specific time, conservation incorporates features from multiple time periods to display a full history of the space.

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 welcomed visitors and held its usual seven masses per day. The project is also a financial commitment: the Archdiocese estimates that interior and exterior renovations have cost $175 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. Raymond Pepi, founder and president of Building Conservation Associates, led the forensic analysis of the Cathedral. That analysis enabled the design team to make restoration and conservation decisions on the basis of the strength and integrity of the building’s woodwork, plaster, stone, and glass. So far, around 150 masons, painters, carpenters, and other builders have labored on the project.

Inspecting Stained Glass (Courtesy STI John Baer)

Inspecting Stained Glass (Courtesy STI John Baer)

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

Transparency is a salient feature of the new design. New programmatic elements include sliding glass doors at the main entrance on Fifth Avenue so that, even in cold weather, the 9,000 pound bronze doors to the cathedral are always open.

The cast concrete ceiling is designed to resemble a ship's hull (Courtesy Whitney Cox)

The cast concrete ceiling is designed to resemble a ship’s hull (Courtesy Whitney Cox)

Exterior façade (Courtesy Whitney Cox)

Exterior façade (Courtesy Whitney Cox)

The team blasted the facade with a mixture of glass and water to reveal any damage to the building. The original building, says 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.

The interiors were curated to increase the space’s comfort and reduce visual clutter. The design team worked with the clergy to eliminate plastic signage and statuary placed haphazardly in the interior. 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. Approximately 5 to 6 percent of panels were removed and restored by Ettore Christopher Botti of Botti Studios.

Significantly, the Archdiocese of New York has invested in green energy, with ten geothermal wells planned for the site. The wells extend 2,200 feet underground and will provide 30 percent of energy for cathedral.

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