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St. Patrick's $177M restoration to begin

Msgr. Robert Ritchie is supervising St. Patrick's Cathedral's

Msgr. Robert Ritchie is supervising St. Patrick's Cathedral's $177 million restoration project. (May. 11, 2012) Credit: Nancy Borowick

Msgr. Robert Ritchie never fathomed that one day he would stand toe-to-toe with the 330-foot spires of Manhattan's storied St. Patrick's Cathedral, where he is the rector.

Ritchie, 67, is supervising St. Patrick's Cathedral's $177 million restoration project, which will begin within days. It is the first face-lift since the 1940s for the cathedral, which will remain open during the project. A national landmark, St. Patrick's Cathedral -- an architectural beauty that has amazed him since his childhood in Upper Manhattan -- welcomes 5.5 million visitors a year.

As the supervisor of the project Ritchie must be familiar with every aspect, including repairs to the 130-year-old cathedral's iconic spires.

"You bet I am going to the top," said Ritchie, who must receive certified scaffold training before he can climb to the spires. Their restoration, the monsignor said, will include cleaning and repointing the spires' stone and glass lead exterior.

Pollution and soot have deteriorated the cathedral's stonework, causing chunks of it to fall to the ground. Scaffolding and nets have been raised to catch falling debris for the last several years, he said.

"Now we need to clean it so we can keep the cathedral safe and preserve it for future generations," said Ritchie, who as a young boy instantly connected to the cathedral's spiritual Gothic aesthetics.

"My grandmother and I would come here and pray," he said, touching the Pieta statue behind the cathedral's main altar.

Ritchie said restoring the cathedral's infrastructure "is about preserving a legacy, a state of mind, a place of spirituality where millions can find a quiet corner, a private corner that lets them reflect on whatever is bugging them."

The projected five-year restoration "is unprecedented in the U.S.," said the project's architect, Jeffrey Murphy of the architectural firm Murphy, Burnham and Buttrick.

The first phase of the project will begin with a low-pressure power wash of the church's facade using an abrasive to remove acid deposits. The wash will likely reveal cracks and loose mortar that will be repaired with filler stone, he said.

The stained-glass windows of leaded glass will be cleaned and caulked. There are more than 2,800 individual stained-glass panels; 15 percent of them will be removed and taken off site for repair, Murphy said.

The cathedral's exterior-window protective glazing will also be replaced. The glazing protects the exterior of the stained-glass windows from water and wind. "Think of it like a storm window," he said.

The cathedral's two front bronze doors -- each 22 feet tall by 8 feet wide -- more than 300 pews and 9,000 organ pipes will also be removed to be cleaned and refurbished.

"The idea here is to use the existing cathedral fabric. Clean it. Repair it and make the cathedral what it was when it first opened in 1879," Murphy said.

"It will look a lot lighter. More light will come into the cathedral windows now that they are clean and the cleaner surfaces on the walls and floors will reflect more light. Overall its affect will be brighter."

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