This is the sixteenth in a series of guests posts that feature Archtober Building of the Day tours!
When Sarah Rosenblatt of Murphy Burnham & Buttrick (MBB) and Ricardo Viera of Building Conservation Associates, Inc. (BCA) say that they touched every square inch of St. Patrick’s Cathedral during its three-year restoration, they aren’t kidding. From surveying each piece of stained glass window to washing individual blocks of marble and cleaning the 7,855-pipe gallery organ, this project was nothing short of detailed—and all done without closing the cathedral for a single day. Today’s tour highlighted the comprehensive restoration of the 137-year-old cathedral and the countless hours of collaboration that it took to accomplish this massive achievement.
Our tour began across the street from the cathedral’s main entrance. From the Atlas statue at Rockefeller Center, we studied the building’s south side façade. Rosenblatt and Viera explained the original design and construction process by American architect James Renwick, Jr. Thanks to a thorough cleaning job using micro-abrasion technology, from our perspective you could easily see the color and texture gradations in the various types of marble chosen through each construction phase in the mid-to-late 1800s. Once a dreary gray due to years of pollution and exposure to rainwater, the seven types of marble and three granites that make up this historic cathedral are more lustrous than ever.
Not only did the exterior become significantly lighter during the restoration, but the interior was fully brightened as well. “The building really sings now,” said Rosenblatt as we entered the cathedral’s nave. Renwick’s original vision for the Gothic Revival construction featured a white, bright, and airy interior with natural light filtering in from the stained glass windows and the lay lights in the ten chapels that surround the pews. After reviewing Renwick’s archival drawings, the team discovered and revealed those lay lights, which had been covered for the last 55 years. The deteriorating interior ceiling—plaster fixed to wood lath ribs—was also inspected for repairs and then cleaned and repainted, further brightening the 397-foot space.
To convince the Archdiocese to allow such a radical and time-consuming restoration on the interior, the project team first completed one small section of the north transept, unveiling a night-to-day transformation. BCA’s Viera showed before and after photos to the tour group, calling what they did a “big understatement” compared to the project’s full potential.
It’s been over 70 years since the cathedral’s last major renovation in the 1940s. Overdue for a new birth of sorts, it went through 33,000 individual repairs. New fire suppression and geothermal mechanical systems were also installed to increase safety and reduce energy consumption.
Our tour ended on Madison Avenue, examining the exterior detailing of Lady Chapel. After observing all the ornamentation in the interior roof bosses, on the column capitals, and the spires that top out around the building, Rosenblatt noted how much unknown embellishment they found during surveying. “There’s so much going on that you don’t see from down here on the street or in the nave,” she said. “But I guess the point is that God can see it.”
About the author: Sydney Franklin is a content producer at the NYC Department of Design and Construction. She recently graduated from Syracuse University with a master’s degree in architectural journalism.