From the Preservation Studio, General

Beautiful Work Done Beautifully: A Case Study

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Monsignor Mannion in the Cathedral of the Madeleine

At CRSA, we’re big fans of historic restoration and renovation. Its a chance to save something that would otherwise cease form existence, to care about future generations, to learn about past generations, and to just appreciate the skill of architects and builders who have come before us.

We were excited, then, to join Monsignor M. Francis Mannion on a tour of the Cathedral of the Madeleine to understand its 1993 renovation/restoration. The $12.5 million project included 30% funding from non-Catholic sources and stands as a testament to both a collective caring about Salt Lake’s cultural resources, as well as a model of careful and well-considered preservation work.

With great care, Monsignor Mannion and his team put together a guiding document: Seven Principles for the Restoration and Renovation of the Cathedral of the Madeleine. While these principles, summarized below, are directed particularly at the work on the Cathedral, they easily adapt to most any preservation project.

1. Careful Restoration and Conservation

Renovation involves substantially different criteria than new construction. It’s not a time to edit what existed previously. The work at the Cathedral required the Architect to approve not only the contractor, but the contractor’s subcontractors as well.

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The ribbed vaults and pillars were all repainted to match their original apperance.

2. Thorough Liturgical Renovation

Catholic churches, and cathedrals in particular, put great emphasis and symbolism on various components of the architecture. The architecture is to be an aid to the order (or liturgy) of the worship service. The Cathedral of the Madeleine’s renovation paid particular attention to the altar, baptismal-font, and seating for the priest and lay-ministers.


The new marble altar and raised platform.


The recent marble baptismal font.

3. Seamless and Organic Development

“The new must grow organically and seamlessly from the preexisting.” Buildings are not static; they unfold as they tell their story. There is a level of finesse and coordination required to bring new characters into this story in a way that doesn’t disrupt or mar the past.

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The renovation allowed for an updated sound system without compromising the aesthetic of the cathedral.

4. Maintaining the Catholic Ethos

“Cathedral” comes from the word cathedra, meaning seat. A cathedral is the bishop’s seat, and also a prefigurement of heaven. As such, it has a persona of gravity, celebration, wonder and illumination. Details of color, form lines, materiality and spatial separations all play a part in hindering or helping create this ethos.

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The ornate bishop’s seat in wood and hand-sewn cushion.

5. Promoting Genuine Creativity

Catholic churches are intended to last for generations, and as such they must critically respond to the contemporary art and style of any given time without compromising the original integrity of the building. For the Cathedral of the Madeleine, an art competition was held to find a new expression for the Stations of the Cross. A local artist was chosen and his work can be seen in the 15 paintings which line the sides of the Cathedral.

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One of the original paintings commissioned to span the new renovation and the cathedral’s long history.

6. Creative Reuse of Existing Artifacts

Renovation must be kept in balance with restoration. Renovation often has to accommodate new uses but that doesn’t negate the value of restoring existing elements. The 1993 work was a collection of added elements, like the altar and wood lattice behind it, removed elements, such as some seating and two windows in the chapel, and alterations, like the baptismal font and the bishop’s chair.

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Original view of the Cathedral Chancel.

pt6b - new

View towards the chancel after renovation and installation of the chapel screen.

7. Excellent Design and Craftsmanship

Simply put, historic work requires extremely specialized skill. It requires a strong knowledge of distinct time periods as well as the ability to execute work that reflects such periods. Both architect and specialists must work together in a special way to achieve this. From the ornate wood carving (considered by many to be the Cathedral’s most notable feature), to the stained glass to even the acoustics, the Cathedral relied on many renown craftspeople to deliver the project.

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Ornate wood work of the pulpit.

So the next time you find yourself inside the cathedral, or inside any other historic space, hopefully you can appreciate not just the architecture, but all that it takes to preserve that architecture.


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