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Spiritual Renewal

Project: The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Sacramento, CA

Architects: Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners LLP, New York, NY, and Washington, DC; Jim Shepherd, AIA, Associate Partner, Project Architect

Restoration Contractor: Harbison-Mahony-Higgins Builders, INC., Sacramento, CA

Structural Engineer: Nabih Youssef & Associates, Los Angeles, CA

By Nicole V. Gagné

Patrick Manogue traveled a long way, geographically and spiritually, to become the first bishop in Sacramento, CA, in 1886. The Irish-born prospector hit pay dirt during the California Gold Rush in the 1850s and used his money to finance a sojourn in Paris, where he attended the Saint-Sulpice Seminary and was ordained a priest. He then returned to the States, and thanks to his efforts as Bishop Manogue, Sacra-mento became the site of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, completed and consecrated in 1889.

Designed by architect Bryan Clinch, the cathedral blended elements of the Italian Renaissance style, especially such inspirations as Flor-ence's Duomo and Rome's St. Peter's Basilica, with French traditions, in-corporating the crucifix design of L'Église de la Trinité in Paris. Dist-inguished by a lofty dome and a soaring 217-ft.-tall bell tower, the cathedral became the heart of Sac-ramento's Catholic population.

It remained a vital force in the city's spiritual life for more than 100 years, despite the gradual loss of its architectural majesty in the 20th century. Its glorious dome was hidden by a simpler convex ceiling; other interior renovations compromised its architectural purity and complica-ted its design and organization. And then there was the lack of both seismic protection and accessibility for the disabled – two concerns that weighed heavily on the current bish-op of Sacramento, the Most Rever-end William K. Weigand, when the $34-million restoration of the cathedral began. In 2001, the firm of Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners LLP (BBB), which has worked on such landmark American cathedrals as St. Patrick's in New York City and the Cathedral of St. John in Prov-idence, RI, was hired to undertake the restoration.

"The cathedral was deficient in addressing current seismic code for California and lacked compliance to most accessibility code, and these were a significant focus that the client wanted us to address," recalls project architect Jim Shepherd, AIA, associate partner at BBB. "The building was load-bearing masonry with heavy-timber redwood beams in the attic, resting on these masonry walls. So if there was a major seismic disruption in the area, there was a significant risk that the load-bearing walls could collapse. Our design intent was to stitch into the historic fabric a system that would hold the building together long enough for people to egress from it."

Working with BBB, Los Angeles-based structural engineer Nabih Youssef & Associates designed a series of steel-reinforced concrete beams along the perimeters of the masonry walls at the top, in the attic. "They called them 'collector beams,'" Shepherd explains. These basically tied the masonry walls together and tied them back to 1-ft.-thick shotcrete that they placed on two sides of the east elevation towers, which gave vertical support. Infill columns were also inserted within the four primary masonry columns that supported the dome at the crossing. "It was a really amazing process to see," he adds. "They took this huge saw and cut into the existing masonry, filled it with steel-reinforcement, and poured concrete in, almost like creating four new columns. They formed the four points at the crossing into which the collector beams were tied, to give the building's load-bearing masonry frame a cohesive structure."

To guarantee that the heavy-timber beams were secured, new anchor supports were placed into the masonry with epoxy and then included in the pour of the collector beams to tie all that structure together. A new plywood diaphragm was applied to the primary roof structure as an underlayment to the main roof, again tying all the roof trusses and roof joists together and tying them back to the masonry walls. "It was really a matter of making sure all of these historic elements reacted as a family rather than as independent, isolated pieces," says Shepherd.

Although these seismic improvements are largely invisible, ADA compliance required more obvious alterations. "When we came on board, the steps to the cathedral came right up to the doors – there was very little landing space," he states. "The bishop felt very strongly that everyone should be able to enter the front door of the cathedral together, so we completely redesigned the entrance stairs. We kept the look of the historic stairs that were there, but pulled them away from the building to allow for a generous landing at the top of the stairs."

An accessible ramp was also added on the north side, enabling people to come up to the main landing and enter the primary doors, and a stair was added on the south side, allowing access to the lower level. "They worked very nicely with the ex-isting structure," says Shepherd. "The new ramp and stair brought symmetry to our additions to the front entrance and made it a more grand entrance."

Inside the church, a new stair and elevator were introduced, allowing access from the main level – the main worship space – to the lower level, where the multi-purpose room and educational facilities are. "Prior to our coming on board, there was actually no way to navigate getting up and down from inside the building," adds Shepherd.

Although a greater plaza redesign for the cathedral has been put on hold until the funding is in place, all of the essential exterior work was done by the Sacramento-based restoration-contracting firm Harbison-Mahony-Higgins Builders, Inc. "The cathedral received an entire restoration of the stucco, and all the loose and damaged stucco was removed," says Shep-herd. "We went back to the historic brick in a lot of cases, and re-pointed it and re-applied stucco in those areas. Then the entire exterior of the cathedral was painted."

A new waterproofing system was also introduced around the perimeter of the building. Most problems had occurred on the north side – when significant storms came through, the sewers would overflow and end up pouring into the basement of the cathedral. "We designed a parking area with a ramp that gave access to the lower level, with curbing and a stair sequence that actually provide some protection against flooding – a significant buffer of about 8 to 10 inches, so water won't penetrate the basement of the cathedral," says Shepherd.

"One of the most challenging things with the exterior," Shepherd adds, "was to re-gild the seven crosses at the tops of the towers and dome. To accomplish this, a New York steeplechase group hoisted themselves up on ladders and folding platforms – they didn't have to build scaffolding all the way up, over 200 ft., to the top of the central tower. That was an interesting feat to watch!"

When work began inside the cathedral, attention was immediately drawn to the original dome, which proved to be perhaps the most gratifying surprise of the entire restoration. "We had no photographs of the old dome prior to coming onto the job," Shepherd recounts. "In the 1930s they put in a shallow dome which covered it up, and we had no sense of the grandeur of the old dome until we went into the attic space and saw that it had been left in place."

"That was a godsend, and it was just such a thrill and surprise to see that wond-erful structure there," he says. He exp-lains that the dome started from about 55 ft. up from the cathedral floor, and extended an additional 55 ft. to its peak. The shallow dome had a Byzantine design, and rose from that 55 ft. above the floor 8 or 10 feet from its outside edge to the peak of the flat dome; it wasn't based on a spherical or elliptical shape cut in half, but was more like a convex lens. "There was conjecture that the old dome was hidden because of acoustic reasons or structural reasons, but we have no confirmation of that," Shepherd says.

Uncovering and restoring the dome, however, introduced an array of new acoustic issues. Working with San Francisco-based acoustic designer Shen Milsom & Wilke, a close inspection of what the refraction of sound in the dome would be was made. Ultimately, acoustic panels were installed in the 16 segments of the dome. "All its original finishes had been removed, and we had to make sure that whatever acoustic panels we introduced on the dome could either be painted or else could have canvases glued onto them, so that they would still perform acoustically but would appear from below with the beautiful new imagery created by EverGreene Painting Studios," says Shepherd. "They worked with us very closely regarding the complete upgrade of the decorative paint on the interior of the cathedral. We came up with a system of perforated metal panels backed with sound insulation and an acoustically transparent fabric that was painted on by EverGreene Studios and then glued onto the perforated metal panels."

The interior restoration became a valuable opportunity to create a coherent profile after decades of alterations. "The cathedral had undergone a series of renovations," says Shepherd. "In addition to the 1930s, there was a 1989 campaign, and an earlier renovation in the 1970s, which addressed changes that came out of the Vatican II conference, regarding changing liturgical design in Catholic churches. So when we came on board there was a real discontinuity of design regarding the decorative and liturgical elements, and the overall appearance of the interior of the cathedral."

The high altar, originally at the west end, had been moved forward to the crossing; there were also shifts in placement of the pulpit, the bishop's chair and the baptismal font. "We relocated the baptismal font to the east end where the entrance to the sanctuary is, so when you come in, it's the first thing you encounter," Shepherd explains. "Baptism is the first sacrament that gives entrance to the church, so the font is at the entrance. That's directly aligned with the altar platform, which was completely redesigned; a new altar was designed to be integral with the platform and placed directly below the center of the dome. Behind the altar we created a new chapel for worship of the tabernacle, and the tabernacle became the central focus of the west wall, where the altar used to be."

Two wooden side chapel altars that had been removed and put in storage in one of the earlier renovations were also brought out, modified and put into the side chapels. These north and south chapels were also redesigned with updated imagery. BBB also reconfigured the pews in the main sanctuary, adding new seats to the historic pew ends. "When they built the cathedral in 1889, the pews were actually much smaller than what is designed today – when you sat on the old pews, you almost fell off!" says Shepherd. "These are more comfortable and generous, and are designed out of hardwood that's built to last. With the redesign we also wanted to bring a level of finish which Bishop Manogue had in mind but they couldn't afford in 1889. He had grand plans for marble wainscot and marble flooring until they ran out of funds, so we included new marble and travertine paving down the main aisle and on the altar platform."

It's a tribute to all the hands involved in this extensive restoration that it was achieved with a comparatively brief interruption in the life of the cathedral: the building closed in August 2004 and reopened on November 20, 2005. This date was celebrated with a re-consecration ceremony that was a special experience for Jim Shepherd. "The reaction that the people had when they came in was a big surprise for me. It was very touching to see how much it meant to them. This is a place that they would come to every week, and they hadn't been able to come to it for such a long time. And to see them come back and have such a positive, awestruck reaction was really inspiring." TB

 

 

 
 

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