Restoration of Cathedral Rectory Gains Preservation Award

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The rectory of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, designed by cathedral architect James Renwick Jr., has been a handsome and stately presence on the southwest corner of 51st Street and Madison Avenue since 1884 when the first group of priests moved in.

But the parts that the public doesn’t get to see—the roof, the kitchen and the heating, cooling, plumbing and electrical systems, for instance—had become hopelessly outdated. Window frames, most of them original to the building, were rotted and many of the 88 windows were inoperable, the small elevator was 80 years old, and the priests’ living quarters were substandard.

“The public rooms were painted, but there wasn’t any major attention given to the rectory for over 30 years—not even a ‘face-lift,’” said Msgr. Robert T. Ritchie, the rector.

All that changed, however, with an extensive renovation and restoration project that brought all of the systems into the 21st century, while maintaining the understated elegance of the interior appointments.

For that effort, the project was honored last week with the Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. Known as “Preservation Oscars,” the awards “are a celebration of outstanding restoration work throughout the city,” said Peg Breen, president of the Landmarks Conservancy.

The cathedral rectory project, by the architectural firm Murphy, Burnham and Buttrick, was originally planned as the final component of a restoration and repair program of the entire cathedral campus, centering on a multi-year $175-million interior and exterior restoration of the cathedral itself. The rectory project was moved ahead, however, because of concerns about fire exits and other safety issues in the aged structure, Msgr. Ritchie said.

To move the project along, Msgr. Ritchie and the six other priests then in residence, as well as four nuns who took care of the house, were temporarily or permanently relocated for the year-long construction period.

“We first planned to stay here, and to do it floor by floor. But that wasn’t possible,” the rector said.

He and three other priests on the cathedral staff have since returned to their living quarters and offices in the building; the others have permanently relocated elsewhere.

“We’re still not 100 percent finished,” Msgr. Ritchie said, “but we’ve been back here for about a year.”

The project began with research at the archdiocese’s Archives at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie and included replacement of all windows with thermal-pane glass, taking care to preserve as many of the original wood frames as possible; replacement of the roof with restoration of the lead-coated flashing and leaders; replacement of the exhaust vents mounted to the building exterior with an undetectable exhaust/fresh air intake system; replacement of the elevator; installation of central air conditioning and modernization of the gas, electrical and plumbing systems.

For the interior, “everything’s been preserved,” said Msgr. Ritchie, pointing out details like the restored wooden fireplaces and decorative moldings and the period door and window hardware. He also delighted in giving a tour of the gleaming new stainless-steel kitchen in the basement.

“I’m a cook,” he said, “but I would never cook anything in the old kitchen. It was awful.”

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