For the past eight months, visitors to St. Patrick’s have entered the historic cathedral through two decidedly uncelestial stainless steel doors, giving the entrance of the 134-year-old church all the mystery and beauty of the walk-in freezer at Fairway.
Late last year, the building’s old bronze doors, which were decorated with unusual sculptures of saints but had corroded and, at one point, been covered with paint in an ill-fated preservation attempt, were removed in the wee hours of night. (Fifth Avenue had to be closed for their removal.) After more than six decades of welcoming the faithful, the doors were taken to the Long Island City workshop of Remco Maintenance, a firm specializing in large-scale restoration and installation projects.
“We had to clean them with dental spatulas,” said art restorer Gabriel Popian, who spent months meticulously restoring the doors inch-by-inch with his wife, Lucia, finishing the process with the application of a chemical patina and gentle protective coating. Mr. Popian, who is also a sculptor, even recreated pieces of the doors that have been missing for years, like vines of Irish ivy that were long ago destroyed by vandals.
But last week, a crew of construction workers (we counted, at various times, anywhere from seven to 12), along with the Popians, a contractor and an architect, gathered in front of the cathedral’s main Fifth Avenue entrance to reinstall the church’s intricate doors. Weighing a formidable 9,200 pounds apiece, they had to be hoisted up with the aid of a gantry. (The doors have a wood core, covered by a thin coat of by brass cladding and over that, 4 to 5 inches of bronze casting, which adds most of the weight.)
Passersby stopped to stare, forming a constantly replenishing crowd of spectators, but if they were hoping for a thrill, they may have been disappointed: The reinstallation process was practically glacial.
“The doors have to stay true,” Michael Bradley, chief operating officer of Remco, explained of the workers’ cautious pace. “They can’t be allowed to bend in any way, shape or form—they’d never go back.”
The restoration of the doors (which cost $500,000) is just one part of a series of renovations currently underway at the cathedral. The $177 million project began in May 2012 and involves everything from fixing the stained glass windows to cleaning and repointing the stonework. The massive scope of the project, which is expected to finish in 2015—if St. Patrick’s can raise the remaining $107 million it needs to complete the work—even extends to the church organ and speaker system. (Before the restoration began, no one could have confused the church’s warbling acoustics with the sound of angel choirs in heaven.)
As it happened, last Wednesday morning’s crowds might not have caught much action—the doors would not be fully unwrapped until later that day, and they would not be truly complete until a priest gave them his blessing. But many spectators seemed to nonetheless find the work fascinating.
“People’s reactions to it have been very unusual,” architect Rolando Kraeher, of Murphy, Burnham and Buttrick, said of the construction project. “They’re very protective of it. When we started the work, they’d say, ‘What are you doing? But now that’s changing. Earlier today, two women—parishioners—saw the doors and they both started crying.”