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How To Give An Iconic 136-Year-Old Cathedral A $177 Million Overhaul

The three-year restoration of NYC’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral is finally complete.

New construction is no small feat, but architectural conservation requires next-level expertise. And in the case of St. Patrick’s Cathedral—a majestic Gothic-Revival church across the street from NYC’s Rockefeller Center—it took an army of engineers, designers, artisans, and historians; 30,000 interventions; and $177 million to restore the 136-year-old structure to its original luster.

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Building restoration requires architects to be schizophrenic in some ways. One day, they’re detectives poring over documents, news articles, and books to figure out how to alter the design while preserving its original essence. The next day, they’re doctors diagnosing the structural weaknesses and repairs that need to take place. They’re also masters of disguise in that they often have to wedge modern elements—like heating, cooling, and fire-suppression systems—into a historic edifice. And you have to manage expectations on top of that, too. (In the case of Scotland’s Stirling Castle, which was recently featured on an episode of the podcast 99 Percent Invisible, the walls were restored to their original ochre hue, but the public hated it in spite of its historic fidelity.)

Murphy Burnham & Buttrick Architects spearheaded the master plan to restore St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and marshaled a team of experts to execute it.

“When we came to this project, the cathedral was magnificent, and it’s still magnificent to this day,” says Jeffrey Murphy, a founding partner of Murphy Burnham & Buttrick. “The net result to this restoration is you’re seeing a building that looks more like it did when it opened in 1879 than it did four years ago.”

James Renwick Jr., responsible for a number of churches along the Atlantic Seaboard, designed the landmarked structure. Builders set the first cornerstone in 1858 and completed the final touches in 1888, nearly 10 years after it first opened to the public. Over the years, dirt and soot accumulated, plaster chipped, and mortar crumbled. It was time for a refresh.

While the building was well documented, few of those records were digitized. One of the first things the restoration team did was cobble together digital drawings and plans that were input into building information modeling systems to help triage the structure better and to delegate and track repairs more efficiently.

On a one-to-ten scale of difficulty, Murphy ranks the restoration challenge at an 11. “It was built with such quality and a high level of craft that I think everybody who worked on this building has a sense of awe on what was able to be accomplished 150 years ago,” he says. “In some ways it’s daunting because the bar is so high on this building. There’s so much of everything to do: There’s woodwork, stained glass, protective glazing, bronze doors, wood doors, and six types of stone, which all require different treatments.”

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While there were thousands of repairs to be done, some of the most dramatic involved the stonework and stained glass. Sections of Tuckahoe marble comprising the structure was in such poor condition that it needed to be excised. The original quarry that sourced the stone is no longer in business, so the builders had to get crafty. They cannibalized materials from sections of the cathedral that aren’t in view (for example, portions of the stone cladding are below grates) to repair sections that are more visible. The contractors even scoured towns near the stone yard to see if there were any remnants that could be purchased (they hit the payload with a stash discovered in a backyard).

Using chemical analysis, the team discovered the ceiling’s original paint palette and recreated the colors. The tracery around the stained-glass windows received reinforcement. Moreover, the architects reengineered some of the glass to allow for better ventilation. They also integrated a state-of-the-art geothermal heating and cooling system—which required drilling 10 wells of up to 2,200 feet into the bedrock beneath the cathedral—that is expected to cut long-term energy costs by 30%. And to keep the cathedral safe for years to come, Murphy Burnham & Buttrick specified a high-pressure mist system to suppress fire.

But when visitors ascend the cathedral’s stairs from Fifth Avenue and walk through the 9,200-pound bronze doors to the soaring nave, they won’t notice the hand of the restorers; they’ll see the sum of all those individual fixes.

“I think it’s more light-filled, which is what cathedrals are all about,” Murphy says. “Your eyes go to heaven. It’s a sort a spiritual design intent that we hope is resurrected.”

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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