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In the glory years of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals, it took just one structure in each archbishopric to elevate artisanship into art. Stonemasons, sculptors, carpenters, glazers, weavers, blacksmiths, painters — armies of craftsmen swarmed over construction sites that remained incomplete for generations. You might think that those skills would have withered in our era of 3-D printing and robot-assisted manufacture. The word artisanal has become a punch line, an all-purpose modifier for pickles and chocolate that resist industrialization.
But take one look at the rejuvenated St. Patrick’s Cathedral and you realize that the world still contains non-ironic specialists with infinite patience and dexterous fingers. The original construction lasted 20 years from cornerstone to the dedication in 1878 — a mayfly’s lifespan in cathedral-building terms. The current restoration took another nine. More than 150 workers, directed by the architecture firm Murphy Burnham & Buttrick, made 30,000 separate interventions, planned and tracked with advanced software but executed by hand. Workers filled the interior with a city of scaffolding. Specialists climbed it to heal cracks in stained glass, fix shattered bits of tracery with invisible puzzle pieces of steel, scour soot off blackened marble, rebuild eroded filigree, replace crumbling stones, replaster ribbed vaults, and revivify wooden screens.
The result is so conspicuously glorious that it makes Rockefeller Center look suddenly shabby by comparison. When Pope Francis steps into the high, cream-colored nave on September 24 to lead Vespers, he will see a building overhauled by hand and eye, a monument to fine-grained labor. St. Patrick’s was built as a testament to the growing Catholic presence in New York and paid for by tycoons and day laborers. (The archdiocese is keeping to itself the sources of the $177 million it raised to refurbish the cathedral.) But even shining monuments to timeless faith get scraggly over the years. Before the restoration, sunlight struggled through darkened windows and got sucked into gray-green vaults. Now the stained glass glows, and the ceiling, restored to its original patterns of pale ocher on plaster, painted to resemble stone, spreads light on the nave below. It helps, too, that the immense bronze doors now remain open in all but the most brutal weather, welcoming in visitors and sunshine. […]