The Restoration

When Monsignor Sheeran spoke with the Chapel Committee, he asked for recommendations that would be faithful to the heritage of the building while providing a worthy setting for worship and private prayer. He asked that it preserve the best of the past while creating a new interior that would be beautiful, bright, colorful, and of the highest quality materials and workmanship. It was a daunting challenge.


After examining the chapel collectively and individually, the committee recommended that several basic principles underlay the renovation, restoration, and renewal of this venerable building. First, wherever possible, some part of each renovation campaign would be retained. Second, the Raggi murals would be restored. Third, the Blessed Sacrament would once again be placed in the center of the sanctuary. The committee also recommended that new energy-efficient air-conditioning and heating systems be installed as well as new lighting and sound systems.


The committee was aware that, like the exterior, the interior would need extensive repair work. Decades of leaks had undermined much of the plaster. The damage was so bad that parts of the wall actually curved out, bowed like some of the stained glass before restoration. The wainscoting and the areas around the heating and air-conditioning outlets had greatly deteriorated and required replacement. The nave floor and the pew seating had been replaced in 1972 and were in good condition. The ends of the pews are original and in good condition as well. Therefore, the nave floor and the pews have been retained, restored, and refinished.


After discussion, the committee recommended that Granda of Madrid, Spain be entrusted with the interior design, and Evergreene of New York be given charge of the restoration of the murals. They were then chosen by the University for the project.


Granda submitted several plans for the new fixtures for the chapel. Some were extremely elaborate. A simpler version of the Granda recommendations was selected. The final version included a sanctuary floor of several tones of wood, a large central wooden Gothic Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament and similar smaller Shrines of the Blessed Virgin and of St. Joseph. The statues of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph would be polychrome wood in the Gothic style as well.


Because of the importance of the altar and the ambo, they would be fabricated of marble in design and colors that would coordinate with the other sanctuary fixtures.


Since the wainscoting was to be removed, Granda provided designs for new wainscoting and containers for the heating and air conditioning outlets. These designs continued to follow the Gothic Revival theme of the chapel decoration. The theme continued in the new wood paneling in the entrance area of the chapel. This paneling was necessary to provide a suitable enclosure for the confessional area, sometimes called the reconciliation room. It was designed to ensure privacy both to the confessor and the penitent and is adaptable to face-to-face confession when requested.


The committee asked Granda to restore the Stations of the Cross, fabricated by Raffl Studios of Paris in 1936, and to provide two versions for approval, one monochrome, the other polychrome. The polychrome version was chosen and Granda was asked to restore the top portions of the stations. The Gothic decoration on the top of the Stations of the Cross had been removed during the 1972 renovation, but Monsignor Cafone fortunately had kept one. Granda then copied the decorative piece in resin and restored it to all of the stations.


A Station of the Cross before restoration.


The restored Stations of the Cross and the restored Benjamin Savage memorial.


The Stations of the Cross during restoration.


The committee then met with Evergreene to discuss the restoration of the murals and the decorative painting of the chapel interior. Evergreene presented several possible decorative schemes. As it was difficult to make a decision based on small drawings, Evergreene constructed different mock-ups in the chapel, painting sections of the nave wall and ceiling in a variety of styles. The final choice was a blue ceiling with silver-leaf stars of a variety of designs. Many Gothic and Gothic Revival churches are decorated in this manner, the ceiling of the church reminding the congregation of the vault of heaven. The starry ceiling also would complement the Raggi murals with their many stars.


The restored ceiling


The decoration of the ceiling beams continued the chevron design of the last half century. However, they would be gold-leaf and coordinated with the entire color scheme. The color of the walls and their decoration took a long time to resolve. Many wall colors and stencil designs and colors were proposed. In June, the wall color and the style and colors of the stenciling around the windows and above the wainscoting were finally chosen after most of the restoration on the sanctuary mural and ceiling were completed. Only then was it possible to see how the colors would coordinate.


The chapel fixtures in fabrication at the Granda Studios in Madrid.


Granda began working on the new chapel fixtures at its studios in Madrid in January 2008. At the same time the chapel was closed. First, the old fixtures and the pews were removed. The chapel was gutted and filled with scaffolding. Not surprisingly, in a building constructed in 1863, problems were uncovered, literally uncovered.


The organ loft had sagged over the years and it was discovered that the pillars in the basement did not align with the columns in the chapel that supported the organ loft. This was addressed and the organ loft made secure. Wood rot and termite damage near the Mother Seton Shrine required the replacement of several floor beams. In addition, part of the ceiling of the Mother Seton Shrine had rotted and was replaced. Deterioration in the ornamental arches of the ceilings also required attention.


In the sanctuary the bases for the old side altars on either side of the chapel were presumed to be wood. However, they were concrete and had to be jack-hammered out. Moisture had invaded the heating and air- conditioning outlets. This required work in these areas. In addition, the new units were of a different size than the old, and adjustments were made.


The walls were in worse condition than anticipated. One of the worst areas was the wall behind the organ loft. In the end, approximately 35 percent of the plaster in the chapel was removed and replaced. The original plaster lathe method was used to replace the deteriorated walls.


When carpenters measured the rear wall of the sanctuary for new paneling, they discovered that the door was slightly off-center. The new door frame hides this minor defect.


Barteluce Architects & Associates was the coordinating architect for the project renovation and Frankoski Construction was selected as the general contractor providing construction management and coordination for all of the various trades.


The chapel during interior renovation


The Murals


The sanctuary and the murals before renovation.


The murals after restoration.


The restoration of the murals was slow and painstaking. First, the artisans removed the light blue over-painting of more than forty years ago. Then they repaired damage done by poor attempts at preservation from the 1940s and 1950s. The figure of the Blessed Virgin in the center, which dated to 1906, was in very poor condition due to repairs and multiple over-painting during the past century.


A signature left behind by an earlier restorer.


The deteriorated condition of the murals before the restoration.


When they finished cleaning, the artisans applied a fixative coating to preserve the mural. Then they restored it throughout. The area surrounding the Blessed Virgin within the mandorla frame was given a graduated ochre tone and the figure restored. The frame was restored with a frame featuring a vine motif enhanced with gold leaf.




The painstaking work of the restoration of the murals


Removal of the light blue over-painting brought back Raggi's midnight blue. Removal of the over-painting also removed the stars that had been added in a linear and very unnatural manner. The colors of the robes and wings of the angels now showed their original brightness. The smoke from the angels' censers, long obscured, came into view once again. The stars, in random order in the sky as envisioned by Raggi, were restored with glimmering gold leaf. Once again, the wall mural stood out in its original majesty.


The arch mural was in even worse condition. There were several long tears in the canvas. Before restoration, these tears had appeared to be creases. It had been over-painted several times. In 1972 most of it was simply covered in gray wall paint. In 2000, it had been over-painted again when a portion of the arch collapsed and the mural was improperly repaired. The tedious removal of all these layers was rewarded when the original brilliant sky painted by Raggi was revealed.


The condition of the arch mural after several overpaintings were removed.


The border of the portrait of the Immaculate Conception. The vine motif is the original border; the light blue is an overpainting of the dark blue Raggi revision to the border.