Roman Effect - Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Springfield, IL

By Hadiya Strasberg
Published in Traditional Building Magazine, December 2010, Vol. 23/No. 6

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was built in Springfield, IL, in 1927, but it drew its inspiration from a church much older and across the ocean. The cathedral's interior was largely modeled after the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. And yet, the Springfield cathedral was at the same time considered truly American; its exterior was built according to the American Church Plan made popular by Asher Benjamin's pattern books.

From October 2008 to November 2009, both the "Roman" interior and "American" exterior were restored by Graham and Hyde Architects and Harold O'shea Builders of Springfield. "The Catholic Diocese of Springfield contacted us about the project around 2006," says James Graham, principal of Graham and Hyde. "Bishop George J. Lucas - now archbishop of the diocese of Omaha, NE - provided critical leadership throughout the life of the project. The diocese recognized that the cathedral was in need of liturgical renewal and accessibility updates." The project was soon extended to include the refurbishment of decorative elements, mechanical improvements, roof and façade work, landscaping and a new atrium addition.

Conrad Schmitt Studios, Inc., an architectural arts studio founded in 1889, was charged with the interior restoration. The New Berlin, WI- based, family-owned company was consulted early in the process, and collaborated with the architect, liturgical consultant Carol Frenning of Minneapolis, MN, other trades, and the owner, to develop a decorative scheme sympathetic to that of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Immaculate Conception shares with Santa Maria Maggiore a similar elegant interior: In both buildings of worship, long, rectangular naves feature a colonnade, clerestory, gilded coffered ceiling and a comparable color scheme.

"Our first sketch was derived from studies of Santa Maria Maggiore," says Heidi Emery, vice president of Conrad Schmitt, who serves as project manager along with her father Bernard Gruenke, Jr. "We then produced an onsite sample illustrating the design concept, which helped communicate the vision of the entire interior. The effect of new next to old was stunning."

The cathedral had undergone only one cleaning in the late 1950s, so by 2008 the scagliola columns had large seams down each side and the varnish had yellowed. The coffered ceiling was coated with dirt and candle soot, there was some plaster damage, and the walls and ceiling had been painted over without regard to the original colors. "Other finishes and decoration were also outdated and tarnished due to the accumulation of dust and dirt from so many years," says Graham.

The first step in the restoration process was to clean the interior surfaces. Cracks were repaired and loose moldings were tapped and locked in. The cathedral was then painted a variety of base tones. "Eighteen different colors were used throughout the building," says Emery. "They were similar to what had been applied in the cathedral originally, but based more closely on the color scheme at Santa Maria Maggiore. We wanted to ensure that the colors worked within the space and chose a very elegant palette that created a soft backdrop to the liturgy."

The light color palette is an excellent complement for the metal leaf, which was applied extensively throughout the cathedral. The ceiling was gilded with 23-kt. Gold leaf, and aluminum leaf was used for the 190 coffer insets. The canvas panels for the coffers, each of which features a trompe l'oeil design of a rosette, were painted at Conrad Schmitt's studio and transferred for installation. "The nine-layer stencil pattern we created was a combination of base tone, aluminum leaf and tinted lacquers," says Emery. "The simulated highlights and shadows gave the panels the three-dimensional effect we wanted."

Each panel measures about 5 ft. square by 2 ft. deep. Selected panels were custom fit for new downlights and acoustical panels that were designed by Graham and Hyde Architects. These were strategically placed behind a number of the canvas panels.

The colonnade, made up of 18 26-ft.-tall x 3-ft.-dia. fluted Ionic scagliola columns, was another involved undertaking. "We cleaned off the dust and dirt, then removed two coats of varnish with an environmentally friendly stripper," Emery says. "Seams were patched with a peach-tinted pigment, and then the columns were sanded and hand buffed with fine sandpaper and tin-oxide. Carnauba wax was applied as a protective coating."

A new altar, side shrines and an immersion baptismal font were created to complement the existing liturgy. The new baptismal font was placed at the crossing of the center aisle and a new transverse aisle, which was created to access a new atrium.

The atrium, a 3,500-sq.ft. room nestled between the cathedral and the school, was designed as a gathering space. "Since the building is fronted on the street, there wasn't space to expand the small narthex," Graham explains. "The atrium made more sense on the south side of the cathedral, where it replaced a convent."

The atrium is ADA-accessible via a ramp, which provides access to the church, and an elevator, which connects to the parking area. Ramps were also added on the north and south sides of the cathedral to provide entry through the narthex.

Many of the atrium's interior finishes are similar to those in the cathedral so there is a smooth transition between the spaces. "So as to appear unified with the original 1927 building, the atrium's interior is in line with the décor of the cathedral," says Graham. There is a coffered ceiling, Mankato stone cladding, porcelain tile floor and a similar color scheme.

Not much work was done to the exterior of the cathedral. "We conformed to the American Church Plan of the original building," says Graham. "The rectangular form with a temple front and multi-level tower was maintained." The facades were cleaned and the Mankato stone was tuck pointed. The general contractor for the project was Harold O'shea Builders, Springfield, IL.

After 14 months of construction, during which time the cathedral was closed, an enthusiastic dedication ceremony was held. Graham says the team took great care to appreciate and enhance the existing work without changing anything, and that is reflected in the completed project and numerous awards it has received. Including the 2010 Painting and Decorating Contractors of America "Picture It Painted Professionally Award."

"Restoring the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was a labor of love for the diocese of Springfield and all the local trades," says Emery. "We are all very proud of it." - Hadiya Strasberg


Roman Effect - Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Springfield, IL (PDF 5.72 Mb)

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