James Renwick’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral: A Restoration

Building: St. Patrick's Cathedral

Architect: James Renwick, Jr.

Design and Construction: (1853-1888) Renwick began design of the cathedral in 1853 and its cornerstone was laid five years later in 1858. Construction of the cathedral continued rapidly until the Civil War, which delayed the process, but the building was ultimately completed in 1879; the building’s main spires were added in 1888.

Location: New York City, Fifth Avenue between 50th and 51th street, occupies the entire city block.

Interior of the Cathedral, circa 1902, Library of Congress

Interior of the Cathedral, circa 1902, Library of Congress

James Renwick, Jr., architect of the Smallpox Hospital, designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1853, one year before construction of the hospital structure on Blackwell Island began.

On March 17, 2012, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, announced the cathedral’s much needed restoration. A restoration of this scale had not taken place on the building in over seventy years; it would cost roughly $175 million.

The cathedral includes immense transepts and a vaulted ceiling with towers of 330 feet in height. Above its main entrance is a 26 foot-in-diameter rose window. Restoration of the building was expertly handled and headed-up by the New York-based architecture firm Murphy, Burnham & Buttrick Architects and was completed in September 2015.  The architecture team stabilized the Cathedral’s original stone and plaster work; repaired and cleaned the building’s stain glass, including the rose window; and did a complete restoration of the building’s marble exterior.

The Process of Restoration

Images (top to bottom, left to right): Crew installs an exterior protective glazing on the rose window, Murphy, Burnham & Buttrick; Cleaning of the rose window, Murphy, Burnham & Buttrick; Repairing the copper cross, Whitney Cox; Stone review, Whitney Cox; Interior inspection of the stained glass, Whitney Cox; Interior inspection of stained glass, John Baer/Building Images; Interior plaster repair, Whitney Cox; Construction crews dismantle exterior scaffolding, Murphy, Burnham & Buttrick

Architectural historians revere Renwick’s building and in December of 1976, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The book The Only Proper Style states “St. Patrick's occupies a special place in American Gothic Revival, for it marks the first project in this country of a magnitude comparable to anything being done in Europe. ...Renwick's masterpiece demonstrates that Americans were capable of accomplishing work of a high order and on the grandest scale, opening the way for such awesome projects as the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine and the Washington Cathedral.”

Cathedral Restored

Images: John Baer/Building Images (left), Whitney Cox (right)

‘The grandeur of this holy place has lifted up the lowly and taught humility to the mighty. At its portals, the world seems left behind. – Cardinal Francis J. Spellman, circa 1930