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Podcast Ep.6: Historical Preservation - Structure Tone
What does it take to restore every square inch of a century-old structure? Join Rich Schneider and Mike Neary of Structure Tone New York as they discuss preserving and updating New York City’s venerated St. Patrick’s Cathedral. From hand-cleaning every inch of the interior to implementing a unique mist fire suppression system, the project was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all involved.
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Podcast Ep.6: Historical Preservation

What does it take to restore every square inch of a century-old structure? Join Rich Schneider and Mike Neary of Structure Tone New York as they discuss preserving and updating New York City’s venerated St. Patrick’s Cathedral. From hand-cleaning every inch of the interior to implementing a unique mist fire suppression system, the project was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all involved.

TRANSCRIPT:

Narrator:

Welcome to Building Conversations, a construction podcast powered by the STO Building Group. On today’s episode, Alison Smith, a member of STO’s corporate marketing team, will be talking about the unique aspects of restoring and preserving historic structures with Mike Neary and Rich Schneider, the construction experts who lead Structure Tone New York’s team in restoring St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Alison Smith:

So I’m here with the Rich and Mike to talk today about restoring historic buildings and using St. Patrick’s Cathedral as our prime example. Before we get into that, um, can you both tell me a little bit about your backgrounds and your careers? Rich, do you want to start?

Rich Schneider:

Yeah. Good morning. My name is Rich Schneider. I have 40+ years’ experience. The first 14 years I worked in the core and shell industry and then, uh, I moved over to Structure Tone. I have 26 years with Structure Tone. I handle most of our large, uh, let’s say unique projects. For the last 13 years I’ve worked on most of the historic preservation projects we’ve done in New York, and I was lucky enough to be in charge of the St. Patrick’s Cathedral restoration, which I worked on for approximately 10 years.

Alison Smith:

Wow. Mike, how about you?

Mike Neary:

Good morning. Uh, Mike Neary, chief operating officer at Structure Tone, here in New York. Been with Structure Tone for over 35 years. Currently, I manage and direct our day-to-day operations for the New York business, from business planning to full execution. I ran our Boston office for five years and uh, so I touch almost all projects in one shape or another. Working with a great team, including Rich in many of our department heads.

Alison Smith:

And what was your involvement with St. Patrick’s cathedral?

Mike Neary:

Well, from the start and the pursuit of the project and assembling the team, the execution from start to finish, and the reporting. And obviously touching base with the client as well for the kind of support that was needed for such a prestigious project and a high-risk project.

Alison Smith:

Right, yeah. On such a big job and over, like Rich said, 10 years, I’m sure everyone touched this.

Mike Neary:

A big team, whether it’s in the field or in the office, there’s an awful lot of people that go around in touching a project like that.

Alison Smith:

Right. So maybe we can back up a little bit. Um, and talk about our experience with historic preservation in general. Um, since the Notre Dame fire last year, this has become maybe even a bigger topic or issue than it was before. So, what kind of work before we started working with St. Pat’s, what have we done? Um, in terms of historic preservation?

Mike Neary:

Well, I think we may be known as a commercial, you know, interiors contractor, even with our core and shell capabilities, but there are many buildings that we’ve worked that had historical preservation aspects to them. The Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue, um, the Lyric Theater, Saint Thomas Episcopal, and uh, the Grace Church School. So, there’s been many projects that we’ve been brought into, mostly because of our ability to work in occupied areas and conditions and being very sensitive to the environments that we’re working in really brought a lot of unique skills to be able to work on a project like St. Pat’s.

Alison Smith:

Yeah, I’d imagine just working in New York City like you do, that’s what you do every day. The density and just dealing with that, plus put on top of that, all of the special things you need to know about preserving historic structures has got to be tough.

Mike Neary:

Yeah, I think that, you know, Rich and our team put together all of that and then some, when you look at what had to be accomplished at St. Pat’s and the team did an unbelievable job to make sure that the public was protected and safety first, and to make sure that we executed on all the promises that we made to the archdiocese.

Alison Smith:

So good segue. How did we end up connecting with the archdiocese to start with and you know, if we were kind of known as a commercial firm, how do we end up being their, their people?

Rich Schneider:

Well approximately 2005 the cathedral was having issues with the exterior stones falling off. And as Mike said, we had quite a bit of experience and one of the architects on the project gave us a call and said they need help up there. So we went up and looked at it and we came up with a plan to put netting up and scaffolding. We had the scaffold. The problem was it was right in the front of the church. Um, it was kind of a sore spot. A lot of women who were getting married kind of complained about that scaffolding, but, uh, it had to stay there. In fact, one time we took it down for a special event and we put it back up. So, we kept working over the next couple of years, kind of working our way around with the stone. And then the other thing that occurred is the air conditioning was failing in the cathedral. You know, the cathedral had not been renovated since the 1940s. So, we ended up putting in a temporary chiller plant on the North side of the cathedral and we maintained the air conditioning for three or four years. So, four or five years into this relationship, they had decided to renovate the cathedral. It was a large project, over a hundred million dollars. And we started getting involved with the preconstruction and the planning of the cathedral.

Mike Neary:

That preconstruction that Rich is talking about was very, very important for the entire team because when you have a complicated project like this, the logistics and the planning value that the team was able to bring really aided the entire design team and what they wanted to accomplish and more importantly, capturing all the potential costs and exposures, because risk management was super important for the archdiocese. There was a lot of fundraising that had to go on to make this project happen and there was, you know, slowdowns tied together with the fundraising and, and development of accurate planning.

Alison Smith:

And do you think that’s part of why they hadn’t started doing this before? It was just so overwhelming to have all those pieces come together and…

Rich Schneider:

Well it wasn’t just about simply cleaning the building. You know, there was restoring, it was removing toxins, it was repair, it was preserving. But the thing you had to understand is you wanted to strengthen the building so it would last for decades and you had to understand the fabric of the building. To upgrade the mechanical, electrical, you know, it was behind the historic elements. It was open to the public, it was an exterior job with the elements on Fifth Avenue across from Rockefeller center. The extensive public people who visited every day, you know, 10,000+, 5 million people a year. And just the most important thing was the life safety and, and the and the protection of the facility itself. Again, it took us months and months to really plan the process.

Mike Neary:

When you also notice the, to the naked eye, people were using the cathedral on a daily basis and they may not have been aware of the amount of disrepair that was there because you’re talking about hundreds of feet high in the air, exterior, interior things that were not, you know, right in front of somebody’s face that when they took the undertaking of going from all the deferred maintenance start to finish, when you look at the before and after, you know, you, you, you wouldn’t pick that up when you first walked in that had been discolored for so many years. You couldn’t tell until you saw the stark difference. With the stained glass, with the all the stone work, it was night and day and, and to still be operating on a daily basis. So that was a really interesting part of it.

Rich Schneider:

And, and one of the edicts was to make it so people felt they were still in the cathedral, not in a construction site. So.

Alison Smith:

No biggie.

Rich Schneider:

No biggie.

Alison Smith:

So let’s dig in a little bit to what the work entailed. Um, should we start on the interior restoration part? Sounds like you were mentioning that you had to have an understanding of the different materials and artisans and vendors and everybody who was involved in that. Can you tell us some of the, I guess specifics of what we did in there?

Rich Schneider:

So the interior restoration was, was really three parts. We upgraded the mechanical/electrical, you know, we put in an air conditioning system, we upgraded the power. We also did A/V and telecommunication work, you know, cause they broadcast mass and, and to bring up the level of the sound system in the cathedral was important. We restored every square inch of the entire interior of the cathedral. It was stone, plaster, terracotta tile. It was metal, marble. All interior wood was refinished. Every square inch was hand cleaned with toothbrushes and rags. We redid the organ. So, there are three organs in St. Pat’s, but the main one had 9,000 pipes that we disassembled and took out of the church for about a year. And each of those pipes were cleaned, restored. It all came back into the cathedral and they tuned every piece of pipe. And the thing that they did that was unique is they synchronized the three organs, because if an organ in the back played, you heard a delay in the front. So, the piping was coordinated and synchronized, so it, so it sounded the same throughout the church.

Alison Smith:

Wow.

Rich Schneider:

So that was really an interesting fact that we did. Um, the church on the inside, you know, the interior was stone to a height. Back when they built it in the, uh, 1800s, they ran out of money and they went to plaster and terracotta tile. So, it looks like a lot of it is stone, but it’s really hand painted and the artisans hand painted the entire church. Everything you see is hand painted. Extensive…

Alison Smith:

So both originally and in this restoration.

Rich Schneider:

Yes, in the restoration it was hand-painted.

Mike Neary:

I’ll never forget walking up on the top platform to see painters on their backs with small brushes. You would think that with vast space that they had to touch every square inch – when you say every square inch –

Rich Schneider:

Literally every square inch.

Mike Neary:

It’s literally every square inch, which is remarkable because when you sit in the pews now when you look up, you can’t imagine what it took for the, the man hours and the artists and skills to be able to restore that.

Rich Schneider:

Right. I think probably the greatest single thing we did, which was really the challenge, was creating the scaffolding plan and we had to scaffold, you know, you scaffold the side of the church because it’s high. You could divide it in half and work above and we moved the scaffolding around to keep a certain number of pews and run the mass. But the center of the church, which goes up over a hundred feet, we devised the scaffolding system. We put rails about 75 feet up in the air and we had a moving scaffold and we had six sections. So, you know, at church, you follow the arch at the top of the church. So, we built a platform and then we had about 75ft arch of scaffolding and we move this across the church as we worked because you know, mass and daily activities are underneath. That in itself was an engineering feat. Another unique thing and you don’t realize it is when you do plaster work or you work in an old cathedral, humidity and temperature control are important. We had to maintain in that big volume of space, the right environment, so the proper materials would cure and last for the time period that they were planned for, you know, so you didn’t have faulty construction. Really a tough task. You know, we did temporary air conditioning, we had fans, we really had to work at it. So, a lot of the things you take for granted, you know, when you work in restoration, that’s what you run up against.

Alison Smith:

And I was thinking while you were talking about doing every square inch, is that because of the delicacy of the materials or because of the intricacy or you know, doing it that way versus say like…

Mike Neary:

Broad brushing.

Alison Smith:

Yeah, just like a bigger, less detailed way of cleaning or restoring.

Rich Schneider:

I would say it’s two things. The one thing you have to do when you do a restoration, and if you listen like at, uh, Notre Dame and other areas, the first thing they say is we have to do a survey to assess the status of the building. So, they physically surveyed the whole building, every square foot, and you’re preserving, you’re not replacing. So, anything that could be reused was reused and the materials were replicated so they were compatible and we could obtain the finishes, all the products. So, um, you can’t really broad brush it. That’s not really restoration. That’s renovation.

Mike Neary:

And your team had to be adjoined as you were going along, right. Because you were finishing the work and getting it approved almost on a section by section basis. So, it wasn’t like you were going to finish the job and have someone come in and look at it after the fact, like some other projects that we work on. So, they were part of the team. It was a team effort going from start to finish.

Rich Schneider:

Yes, so it was a very big collaboration with the architect, the engineers, the consultants, you know, um, a big portion of the interior and the exterior, they kind of go together, were the stained glass windows, approximately 3,200 panels. Most of it stayed in place. It was repaired in place. But the one thing we did to upgrade the cathedral is we put in storm windows. So, every window on the exterior of the building was designed and field measured to create a custom protective glazing on the exterior, vent it, and then all of the lead joints and the anchorage and the panels where required, were repaired in the stained glass windows. I mean that…

Mike Neary:

They were very concerned because of any kind of fogging, etc.

Rich Schneider:

Right.

Mike Neary:

Just with humidity and temperature changes and inside/outside. So that was a big concern.

Rich Schneider:

That was a big concern, so we had to specially vent it. Um, they created a triage on the site where anytime we took down panels of windows, you know, they were laid and all the consultants came in, they made templates so we could put it back together. They could review every piece of glass if it needed to be replaced, if the lead bends were wrong. So again, very meticulous and all these different components on the inside.

Alison Smith:

How do you go about finding all the specialists in each of these little…You know, I imagine it’s a combination of things, but um, was it mostly through the church? Was it mostly through your own contacts of who you know specializes in those things? Like how did you assemble a team of such detail?

Rich Schneider:

It, both items you mentioned, you know, we have extensive experience, so we had a list of contractors we had worked with and we competitively scoured the market to find, not necessarily the most economical person, but the best qualified in the type of work we were doing. Um, an interesting fact is anyone who worked on the job, any of the labor or craftsmen had to take a test. So, when we did the exterior pointing, the firm that ended up with the job, his men had to go and point a section of the stone and the architect and the conservator looked at it and approved them. Some guys failed and were not…

Alison Smith:

So they auditioned.

Rich Schneider:

So they auditioned. So, everyone auditioned. So, we sourced materials all over the country. Products were taken like the wood doors on the transepts. They were taken out. We sent them up to Buffalo and they were all craftsmen who replaced with the wooden kind and all the hardware. Took them, you know, a year to, to renovate the doors. Heavy doors we had to take down with cranes. Uh, the bronze doors were taken down in the front of the church, you know, they were around 9,000lbs a piece. We had to get a huge crane, shut down Fifth Avenue, rig them out, and we made temporary metal doors, which people thought were permanent. And interesting story, the bottom of the church on the exterior has Tuckahoe marble. And it was cracked and broken. So, Tuckahoe is a local stone. It comes from Westchester, but it’s no longer quarried. So, the cathedral actually had a cemetery that said, we have some in our cemetery. So, we bought it in a small amount, but we still did not have enough quantity to fix the bottom of the church. One of the consultants one day was driving around in Westchester and he drove past the gas station and he saw a pile of stone and he pulled in, he looked at it, and it was Tuckahoe marble. So, he asked the gas station guy, would you like to sell the stone? The gas station guy said, I want to get rid of it. Anyway, we ended up paying, I think it was around $50,000 for all the stone. He was very happy. That was the best sale he made on that Sunday. So, there was always that aspect of sourcing the materials, because remember, restoration, you know, 125+ years, you can’t find the materials just in New York. Right. You know, you really have to scour the country.

Alison Smith:

Or world.

Rich Schneider:

Or the world.

Alison Smith:

Um, when you were talking about the scaffolding on the interior, I know there was quite a bit of work that went into doing it on the exterior as well. Let’s talk a little bit about the exterior renovation. What did that entail and how did you manage the scaffolding?

Rich Schneider:

So the exterior was, was a challenge. Approximately 500,000sf of scaffolding. The two spires, you know, if you stand in front of St. Pat’s, there’s North and South, 335ft-high spire. So, you’re in Manhattan, you’re on Fifth Avenue and Madison in a very crowded area. And we had to scaffold a building but take a lot of the load off the building and into the ground. We used a lot of compression because of, you know, structurally it couldn’t hold it. One thing that people don’t realize when, when you’re restoring a building there’s a whole progression that you work through to restore it. First you clean it, which is a unique process. We used high pressure – it’s a combination of water and little tiny glass particles, and we sandblast it, right. And you have to maintain the dust, then you get on it. All the joints in the stone are cut. And then all the architectural features, all the trims, all the moldings. Gargoyles, the parapets that we had to repair cause there was some damage in some of them and we would take those pieces off and the artisans would carve it. So, another kind of an interesting story, the artisans. Most of the carving was done by people from China who had carved for a long time. We set up an area on the site and we basically would put the piece that they needed to replicate and give them a block and they would carve it. And then we would lift it and put it in place. So, there’s a, there’s a whole progression that goes through and there’s a planking system that you have to move. It has to be safe the workers have to have access, you have to carry the construction loads. So, it’s a city within a city of construction materials and access. Um, entry in and out of the building, access for the fire department, you know they were all important aspects of working on Fifth Avenue and Madison.

Alison Smith:

Yeah. So how do you manage the, the life safety part of that and just protecting, because it’s such a busy part of the city, people are coming in and out of the cathedral. How do you make sure that all of that remains out of the way?

Mike Neary:

Part of it is the relationship that they had with the local fire and police department. You know there was a first name basis from the squad members that were responsible for overseeing the cathedral area, and our team as well would know them on a first name basis, to be preventative and to be proactive, whether it was drills or was just a constant communication about the work that was going on and the scheduling of it.

Rich Schneider:

Yeah, so we met with the fire department or project manager or supers and they walked the space a number of times. They educated the fire department as to what we were doing, because again, if there’s a fire, they need to get access to anywhere in the structure, exterior or interior. And on September 8th, 2001, they ran a training program and the fireman that climbed the South tower, which we cleaned on the inside, the windows were dusty, and they wrote their names in the windows on that day. 9/11 occurred and three of the firemen that had written their names perished in 9/11. So, it was sort of a little memorial. We kept it, we kept the area, we didn’t clean it. And that was a 9/11 memorial, which I don’t believe a lot of people know that exists in the South tower.

Alison Smith:

It’s still there.

Rich Schneider:

Yes, still there. So, so the life safety, as far as a permanent installation, one of the interesting things we did is in the attic of the cathedral, we installed a mist fire suppression system and it’s a, it fits in above a network of timbers and roof trusses and wooden lathe and walkways. So due to the limited access, you couldn’t use a normal fire sprinkler system. The mist system uses nitrogen, which propels a small amount of water through a conventional sprinkler system. You know, it’s very quick and it suppresses a fire in minutes. So, the intent was to utilize a system that, wouldn’t deluge the ceiling and damage the cathedral if there was a fire and collapse it.

Alison Smith:

Is that the kind of system that Notre Dame did not have? Is that what kind of became the conversation after that?

Rich Schneider:

Yeah. Yes. We were interviewed by the people in, in Notre Dame and it was asked, you know, what, what did you do specific or unique for the fire suppression and the life safety in the, in the cathedral. And that was one of the items we had mentioned.

Alison Smith:

Another challenge I’ve heard about is, this is an open public space, as you said, all kinds of events, weddings. While you were working on this, the Pope came. How did, how did we work around that?

Rich Schneider:

They told us a year before that the Pope was coming in 14 September. So, we went down, we had meetings every Monday morning and they wrote a note and said, this is an important meeting, make sure everybody’s at the Monday morning meeting. So, they came in and they said, this is not official, but this is official: he’s coming right around this time. So, all of a sudden everything intensified, right? And we’re on the outside of the building, and winter’s coming. So now we have a winter I can’t work, but I got to be done for the spring and summer. So, we start, and of course it’s raining and snowing and there’s wind all over the place. And, uh, we used to go back and say, well, Monsignor, we shut down this, you know, we’re going to need a little more time here in this. And they’d say, yeah, you know, I understand, okay, you know, we’ll work with you and everything else. So, the first schedule comes out and they look at it and they say, this schedule is fine, but there’s no delays. There’s no more delays, whatever you have to do you have to do.

Mike Neary:

Yeah. Well, obviously that was a, you know, you can never factor that into your normal schedule about what the client wanted to accomplish by a certain timeframe. And I think when, when our team got the directive, it was a challenging and very exciting because the entire team is, you know, like Rich mentioned from the craftsmen that had to pass tests to be able to work on the structure and all the pieces to all of a sudden prepare the, the house of worship for the Pope to come to town was really exciting. And you know, a major mission for the entire team. So, you know, there were many nights, weekends, it was a different schedule that all of a sudden was put into gear to make sure that it was prepared. But it was a personal passion for anybody who got the chance to work on this job. From a construction project, we’re used to dealing with facilities managers and real estate directors. And in this particular case, our managers were the Monsignor of St. Patrick’s cathedral and Cardinal Dolan. So, when the Pope came, the Cardinal had made arrangements for the construction team to be standing on a section of the front steps of the cathedral where the entire street was shut down and no one had access except for the dignitaries or VIPs within the cathedral. Here you had the entire construction team standing on the steps and when the Pope came on his Pope-mobile to the front of the cathedral, the Cardinal, the Cardinal took specific time out with the Pope. As we stood there, and he pointed to the construction team and started motioning and telling him how much work they had put into restoring the cathedral. So, the culmination that day for that team was, was something really special. You know, for everybody that was there will never forget.

Alison Smith:

Once a lifetime.

Mike Neary:

Once a lifetime, absolutely. There’s no other project that you can tell that story, you know, no matter how many years your career is. So that was really, really special.

Alison Smith:

So, since this topic of, of these kinds of priceless historic structures has been at the forefront since Notre Dame I know, Rich you mentioned, you know, you guys have actually been consulted about it. If you were being asked by other owners of historic properties, you know, what do we need to do so that another Notre Dame wouldn’t happen, what are the kinds of things you learned and took away from this experience that you would say they should think about?

Rich Schneider:

I would say as owners of the facility, they need to take a hard look at the existing conditions and the status of their structure and uh, you know, where it is in the life cycle of, uh, you know, life safety and, and mechanical, you know, efficiency and upgrades. You want to always reevaluate your, your property.

Mike Neary:

You also have to think about it from, you know, we’re used to many clients making decisions based on much shorter periods of time for a return on an investment. And you know, if the last time they, they spent money on a facility like this, it was 1940, and you look at the number of years that went by and the kind of investment that they’re making for the next 50 years or 70 years. Their investment for geothermal, right? That is a very long-term investment.

Alison Smith:

Yeah. Let’s talk about how that came to be. Because this is such a big project anyway that adding on such a major project to it, it just seems a little daunting. And then, like you said, Mike, this is Manhattan. How in the world do you put a geothermal system in? So Rich, can you tell us a little bit about the generation of that and how we, how we ended up making it happen.

Rich Schneider:

So the, the main facility of the cathedral needed to be upgraded on the mechanical side and they had limited space. So, then the concept came up and they said what about a geothermal plant? Small footprint. It’s almost invisible for the size plant we built. And it’s also a free cooling and free heating.

Mike Neary:

We can’t put a cooling tower on top of the cathedral.

Alison Smith:

And it’s renewable.

Rich Schneider:

And it’s renewable. Yes. So, the, so the geothermal plant is a 240-ton plant. It’s a small footprint within the basement of the cathedral. And on the North and South side, uh, we drilled five, 2,000ft wells. So, the concept is you circulate water through the earth, and you get free cooling or free heating. So again, think of you’re in Manhattan and you’re going to get a, a drill rig, and you’re going to drill a hole through rock because the church is built right on rock. Rock was only three or four feet below grade. And you’re going to drill down 2,000ft to put these wells in, you know, run all the piping and then connect back to the geothermal plant. So, there was some issues, there were apartment buildings across the street. There was Rockefeller center. So…

Alison Smith:

All the infrastructure of Manhattan underneath,

Rich Schneider:

Underneath, right.

Alison Smith:

All the things we don’t see.

Rich Schneider:

Right.

Mike Neary:

Subway’s nearby.

Rich Schneider:

And it’s a very, very hard rock below that has a grain to it. So, we devised a high protection system we put up around the drill side area and we drilled wells. The one thing that’s, again, you wouldn’t think of this, when you drill a well, it catches into the grain of the rock. The drill rig will actually bend so you could drift a hundred feet in 2,000 feet and actually leave your property line and be underneath the building across the street. So, we did have to monitor that. We did at times start to drift too far and had to correct ourselves. Um, we had to run an extensive piping system underneath the church, which required us to underpin foundation work and snake through the tunnels of the church. It was a concern, you know, the, uh, just the general concept of, of running a geothermal plant in Manhattan, but it was 100% successful. It carried the load. Uh, it, the geothermal plant supplies all the buildings within St. Pat’s.

Alison Smith:

I’d imagine it’s become quite, um, a model for others how to do this.

Rich Schneider:

Yes, a lot of engineers and a lot of, uh, different facilities have come and looked at it.

Alison Smith:

So I feel like we can’t even do justice to all the bits and pieces that went into this project. But maybe if you could tell me again, kind of big picture, why it was so special to work on a project like this.

Mike Neary:

We tell people we work in construction in Manhattan, we do commercial interiors, we do new buildings. But when you say you did St. Patrick’s cathedral, you know, we’re working on the Vatican in Rome, you know, it’s like, it’s that kind of a statement that everybody knows, no matter what religion or faith, etc. That’s a, that’s a historic building. And we were part of that restoration. So, we will never forget that as a firm.

Alison Smith:

Sounds like the project of lifetime.

Mike Neary:

No doubt.

Alison Smith:

Alright. Thank you.

Mike Neary:

Thank you.

Rich Schneider:

Thank you.

Narrator:

How can the AEC industry join forces to give back? Tune in on December 2nd for a bonus episode to find out how the New York real estate council uses our industry’s unique expertise to bring hope to children diagnosed with critical illnesses. Thanks for listening to Building Conversation.