Old Cathedral renovation seeks to restore a treasure

LISA JOHNSTON | lisajohnston@archstl.org

An extensive renovation of the Basilica of St. Louis King of France, popularly known as the Old Cathedral, is under way with scaffolding in place on the exterior to repair stonework -- just one step in a comprehensive effort to restore this treasure of the Church and city.

"There's new technologies as to how to protect the stone as well as enhance its quality, and we're taking advantage of that," said Father Richard Quirk, associate pastor of the parish.

Weather extremes have resulted in extensive damage to the exterior stonework, columns and windows of the nearly 180-year-old building, the oldest public structure still standing in the City of St. Louis and the only building in the city that remains in the hands of its original owners.

Some of the interior carpeting has been removed, exposing the solid wood flooring. Some 15-plus windows in the church will be replaced beginning June 15. They will appear much as they have previously but
will be much more energy efficient. After that, lighting changes will be made to highlight the architectural integrity of the building asconceived in the 1830s.

"We'll be able to make a solid statement about the strength of faith as the pioneers moved westward," Father Quirk said.

The church is the first cathedral west of the Mississippi River, and until 1845 it was the only parish church in the City of St. Louis. It continues as a vibrant parish serving the Downtown community and more than 200 parishioners.

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As much of the original woodwork and tile as possible will be restored. Much of it had been covered with carpeting or was painted in the last 60 years.

Charles and Shirley Drury and Don Musick of Musick Construction have been spearheading fundraising from parts of the civic and Church community for the $15 million effort, which is a little shy of $6 million so far.

Contributors have made large gifts and smaller gifts that supplement them, "and we're very grateful for every one. It's been tremendous, and now we plan to expand to a larger audience," said Father Quirk. He noted that the Old Cathedral attracts many Downtown workers and other visitors in addition to faithful parishioners, and opening up the campaign will provide everyone an opportunity to make a donation.

The goal was to raise about half the funds before the expanded effort.

The structure of the Old Cathedral, completed in the autumn of 1834, is a prominent example of Greek Revival architecture in the United States, and it is included on the National Register of Historic Places. The exterior stone facade and the four columns that support the Doric style portico are carved from Joliet stone, mined near Joliet, Ill.

"By every civic and spiritual measure, the Basilica of St. Louis King is a timeless treasure. Its history and the early history of our city are bound together by our region's most significant events," Archbishop Robert J. Carlson said in a news release. "As we approach the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis, the archdiocese is pleased to collaborate with the important renewal efforts taking place on the riverfront by reinstating the architectural dignity of our shared treasure, the Old Cathedral."

The Old Cathedral was last updated and the rectory and museum were built in 1959, the same time that ground was being cleared and plans were under way for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, including the Gateway Arch and the Museum of Westward Expansion. Cardinal Joseph E. Ritter commissioned the renovation and engaged the architectural firm of Murphy and Mackey. Don C. Musick Construction was selected as the general contractor.

The architectural firm of Mackey Mitchell has been engaged to design the current renovations to the Old Cathedral and Musick Construction was chosen as the general contractor once again. For them, Father Quirk said, "it's a labor of love."

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