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A glimpse into the $177 million St. Patrick's Cathedral restoration

The New York City landmark is arguably one of the most famous cathedrals in the world.  It was designed by famed architect James Renwick, Jr., in the Gothic Revival style with its soaring arches clad in marble, accented by intricate detail and full of beautiful stained glass windows. It is now undergoing two-year, multimillion-dollar renovation.  NBC's Craig Stanley reports

NEW YORK -- St. Patrick’s Cathedral, one of New York City’s most recognized landmarks, is getting a much-needed facelift. The 140-year-old cathedral is almost completely shrouded in scaffolding as it undergoes a painstaking 22-month restoration project to enhance its aesthetic beauty and extend its functionality for the next 25 years—and beyond.

It’s a $177 million effort that couldn’t come at a more crucial time—the recommended restoration cycle for a building like this is typically every 30 years. More than 60 years have passed since significant work was done on the cathedral, putting its long-term stability at great risk.

“This project is about stabilizing the building and addressing all of the maintenance issues that have been neglected over the years,” said architect Jeffrey Murphy, a partner of Murphy, Burnham & Buttrick, the architecture firm leading the design team. “The effort is intended to …really put the Cathedral on firm footing for the future.”

The cathedral draws more than five million visitors annually, many coming to relish in the intricate, awe-inspiring beauty of the chapel. But a closer look at the cathedral’s façade reveals great potential for improvement.

“The cathedral is so beautiful, it’s such incredible architecture, and you come in and you’re totally in awe by what you see,” Murphy said. “But, in some ways, that masks a lot of the issues that we see on the cathedral.”

Chunks of falling stone—inside and out of the cathedral—parched, peeling paint, and a leaky roof are a few  of the issues that will be addressed with this restoration. St. Patrick’s Cathedral hasn’t undergone a restoration of this magnitude since the 1940s—save minimal work done in the 70s.

The architect, project manager and cathedral rector involved in the St. Patrick's Cathedral restoration project describe the care, passion and creativity involved.    

The renovation, which began in May, is a three-phased project. The first of which is dedicated to deep-cleaning the Cathedrals’ façade, which has become remarkably dirty over the years due to exposure to weather and air pollution. Parts of the exterior have already been cleaned, revealing a pristine finish—something project manager Andrew Bast said represents the significance of the Cathedral’s pending transformation.

“When you see it… the clean versus the dirty, you can see how much better it could really be,” Bast said. “Bringing the beauty of the building really back out to the public is something very important to all of us on the team.”

The second and third phases will be dedicated to repairing the stone and wood that comprise the building’s exterior, re-glazing stained glass storm windows and updating the cathedral’s interior. The altars will all be replaced and more than 1,000 stained-glass windows will be cleaned with a few extracted for special attention. Parts of the ceiling and walls will also be repainted in this project, scheduled for completion by May 2014.

These restorative efforts are as much about injecting new life into the 140-year old cathedral, as they are about reviving the vision of renowned 19th century architect James Renwick Jr., the mastermind architect.

“That’s part of the mantra of historic restoration,” Bast said. “You’re really focusing on making it feel like you didn’t make any interventions or changes to the historic fabric of the building.”

With that said, improvisation and innovation are still a part of this restoration, which includes plans for a new garden to be designed from scratch. The design time is also using clues from the past—including Renwick’s original blueprints—to recreate parts of the ceiling that weren’t exactly real to begin with.

“Above the 30-foot line, everything is not stone,” Murphy said. “It’s painted to look like stone, but it’s actually plaster and… pre-cast concrete material. One of the big challenges… is actually coming up with the recipe… to make the whole inside, the ceiling and the walls above 30 feet look like stone.”

The cathedral plans to stay open during all three phases of restoration, allowing services such as mass and weddings to continue as scheduled. In addition to the cathedral’s improved state, Cathedral Rector Msgr. Robert Ritchie is looking forward to the positive effects the restoration will have on the people who treasure it.

“I think the first impact will be that everyone says, ‘we never knew how beautiful it was,” Ritchie said. “When we’re finished, everybody would say, ‘It’s so much lighter than we thought’ and because of that, it brings peoples’ spirits up.”