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St. Patrick's Revived

By Naomi BarrMar 16 2016
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In 2012, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, announced plans for a major restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the seat of the New York Archdiocese. The cathedral, which opened in 1879 and is located directly across the street from Rockefeller Center on Fifth Avenue, was in need of extensive repair both inside and out. Pieces of brick and mortar had been crumbling and falling from the outside walls for years, and decades of grime and pollution had profoundly dimmed the interior. Under the supervision of the architecture firm Murphy Burnham & Buttrick Architects (MBB), the restoration took three years, employed approximately 150 workers, and finished just in time for Pope Francis’s arrival late last September.

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, when thousands will be admiring the cathedral along the parade route, we spoke with MBB founding partner Jeffrey Murphy about the process of restoring the landmark, and what we can expect to see in the brighter, cleaner St. Patrick’s of today.

Front & Center: How did your firm first get picked to lead the restoration? Had you ever done work like this before?

Jeffrey Murphy: I hadn’t, but my partner Harry Buttrick had. He had been involved a number of church restorations in the past, though nothing on the scale of St. Patrick’s. So about 10 years ago, Cardinal Egan and the trustees of St. Patrick’s—the people charged with maintaining the fabric of the building inside and out—had noticed cracks on a column inside the church as well as bits of stone and mortar falling to the sidewalk outside. They asked 10 or 12 architecture firms to come up with a needs assessment plan to deal with those conditions. We interviewed, sent in our plans, and two weeks later, they called us up and said let’s get going.

Our recommendation at that time was to put up a sidewalk bridge in front of all the entries and along Fifth Avenue that would protect pedestrians from any falling stone and mortar. That ended up staying up for about eight years. During that time, as a result of our needs assessment, the trustees decided to raise money for a full restoration.

So that brings us up to 2012. What were the goals for the restoration?

Making the building safe was number one. We had to stabilize the stone and plaster so that no one would get hurt. The second was to do everything we could to make sure the repairs would last for the next 30 years, since a building of this magnitude should be restored every 30 years or so. The third goal was to be good stewards of this magnificent piece of architecture. The trustees were incredibly insightful and knew from the beginning that with a structure like this, they had to do the job the right way, or not at all.

And your firm led the way.

Right. We set about designing the project, which was quite multifaceted. There was the exterior fabric to deal with—fixing and cleaning the marble and metals—and all of the interior surfaces: wood, stone on the floor and columns, plaster repair. Some people don’t realize that the vaults of St. Patrick’s are actually made of wood, lath and plaster, and painted to look like stone. We had to clean off all the grime, strip off all the paint down to the plaster, fix the plaster and then reprime and paint all of those surfaces.

To do all of this, we pulled together a design team. We found the most skilled artisans out there who could do this kind of work. We had upwards of 25 consultants on this project, everyone from specialists in stained glass—the Botti Studio of Architectural Arts, which is renowned for their stained-glass restoration projects—to mechanical and structural engineers to geothermal well consultants. Our job was to coordinate the work of all these experts and make it one unifying project.

Did you have to do a lot of research before starting the restoration?

We worked closely with Building Conservation Associates, brilliant historical restoration consultants based here in the city. They have extensive experience in this field, and together we looked through archives at the New York Archdiocese and the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library at Columbia University. We also did some online research. But there was actually very little hard material to work with. There were very few original drawings and plans left by James Renwick, Jr., the architect of St. Patrick’s.

We knew from New York Times articles written at the time of St. Patrick’s opening that the space was supposed to be light-filled and airy. But over the decades it had become a dark, dingy-looking space with very little light coming through, thanks largely to layers of grime from soot and pollution. BCA was instrumental in not only uncovering all this documentation but also doing the forensics that led us to understand what materials and colors Renwick used when building St. Patrick’s.

What did they discover?

As I mentioned, the upper walls and ceiling of the cathedral are not stone, but rather made of wood, lath and plaster. After the Civil War, they needed to save money but still get the cathedral built, so that was Renwick’s solution. By switching to wood and plaster, he not only saved the cost of the stone, he also reduced the structure of the building by eliminating the need for flying buttresses to hold up the top. BCA scraped away at the vault and found chips of original paint, which they then put under a microscope and analyzed. They were actually able to uncover what you could call the original “paint recipe” for the entire interior of the building. The walls and ceiling had been painted a monochromatic color in the '70s during the cathedral’s last renovation, and that color had turned an olive green thanks to pollution from cars and soot from candles. What BCA discovered was that, in fact, Renwick had employed three different colors that he used to create the illusion of mortar and stone, and those colors were actually light and creamy. In fact, we ended up finding original paint behind the organ pipes and the colors BCA recreated matched that patch pretty closely.

Another thing they did back in the '70s was to replace all the mortar between the stones—this is called raking and is common in renovations—but instead of matching the original mortar, they put back something called Portland cement. Now, Portland cement is very hard and unforgiving—mortar is supposed to be sacrificial so if there’s any kind of movement of the stone over time, the mortar should crack, not the stone. This is why pieces of stone had come flying off. But the cement is also a dark gray color. After pulling that cement out, BCA found pieces of Renwick’s original mortar. They did a chemical analysis and were able to determine its exact makeup. So when we repointed the exterior, we essentially put the original mortar back. Not only was it soft and will protect the stone, but the real revelation was that it was the exact same color as the cleaned marble. Suddenly this building, which, with the gray mortar had looked like it was made up of a bunch marble blocks, now appeared like a shining, single piece of stone carved out to look like a cathedral.

The other thing we discovered was the beauty of the stained glass. Light wasn’t coming through the glass because the protective glazing that had been put on in the '70s had oxidized and layers of grime had collected on it. We cleaned it, recreated any broken glass, and put new protective glazing on the outside, so now colored light floods the building.

That’s amazing. I read in one article that there were upwards of 18,000 areas inside and out needed repair. Is that true?

Actually, there were 30,000. We examined every part of that cathedral. There isn’t an inch of surface in or outside that building that hasn’t been touched by human hands.

Were there any other surprises for you as your team began stripping away the layers of grime, paint and plaster?

I think the biggest surprise was the revelation that Renwick had always intended St. Patrick’s to be a light, airy place both on the exterior and interior. All of that had been lost by years of pollution and bad color choices employed by earlier restorations. What was so cool about this project for us was that we were really able to bring this building back to what it looked like in the 1880s.

The restoration was supposed to be completed by the end of 2015. But then Pope Francis announced that he would be visiting New York in September. How did that affect your timeline?

It was a happy coincidence that the pope chose the time when we were scheduled to complete the project anyway. But there was a tremendous effort by everyone involved to make sure everything was completed by the time of his arrival. Let’s just say everyone was motivated to get the work done and have St. Patrick’s look as beautiful as it could be for his visit.

Now that it’s completed, what has been the response? Is there a particular comment that sticks out?

After we finished, the architectural critic Justin Davidson wrote a piece in New York magazine entitled “What We Can Learn From the Restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.” In it, he talks about how so much of the new architecture going up in the city is cheaply made and cheaply put together, but seeing St. Patrick’s now and how lovingly it was restored affirms that great architecture is indeed possible to maintain and have. It’s a perfect example of how society should take care of important architecture. Reading that piece was very meaningful to the team. The archdiocese could’ve done the bare minimum, but instead they did a restoration that was commensurate with the importance of this building.

What do you feel people should take away from visiting St. Patrick’s today? And how would you sum up your experience?

What makes this project so successful for me is the fact that we were able to reaffirm Renwick’s original intent for St. Patrick’s: that the building should be as uplifting to the public as possible. People visiting now will get to experience that from the moment they walk up the steps on Fifth Avenue.

I would say that for me, and the entire team involved, it was a privilege working on this project. Each person brought his or her A-game to it. And on a practical note, I’m happy to be leaving the cathedral this incredible archive of drawings, digital information and tens of thousands of photographs. The previous restoration campaigns had barely documented anything; what we have left will surely be a leg up for the next group to restore this building—hopefully, in about 30 years.

Photo: Raymond Pepi/Building Conservation Associates

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