The Building of Saint Patrick’s Cathedrals, New York

Recently, while watching the preemptory to the new movie about the life of St. Patrick entitled “I Am Patrick”, I remembered there are two St. Patrick Cathedrals in New York City.  The original, formally called The Basilica of St. Patrick is located at 263 Mulberry Street.  The ‘new’ St. Patrick’s Cathedral is on 5th Avenue and the seat of the Catholic Archbishop of New York.

Old St. Patrick’s broke ground in 1809 and was completed in 1815.  Architect Joseph-Francois Mangin designed it in what is referred to today as the Gothic Revival style. According to Architecture Magazine, Joseph-Francois was designing the building throughout construction.  A tour of this amazing, still operational landmark can be viewed online.

Archbishop John Joseph Hughes was credited for announcing the building of the New St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1853, and Architect James Renwick Jr. was commissioned to design the new cathedral in mid-town Manhattan.  The Gothic Revival style was utilized again.  No mention is found anywhere of an official contractor.  Construction began in 1858, was halted during the Civil war, resumed in 1865, and completed in 1878.  The rectory, where the archbishops have resided, was added in 1880, the school in 1882, and the spires in 1888.  At that point, the building was 329 feet, 6 inches high—the tallest in New York at the time.

We know construction companies existed after the civil war.  Some of those companies still in business today include The Pike Company (1873), Wohlsen Construction (1877), Walsh Group (1898), and Hyman Construction, now known as Clark Construction, (1906).   If you read their histories, you will see they all started as carpentry firms and self-performing trade companies.  Unions did not start to form until the late 19th century, and construction unions did not gain power until after the Great Recession.  Construction Management as we know it today did not exist until recently.

If you take the virtual tours of the two New York St. Patrick Cathedrals, you will see the craftsmanship is astonishing.

To think that despite no formal management, hundreds and perhaps thousands of craftsmen and laborers worked collectedly as a team to see it to its finish.   The schedule was definitely elongated by today’s standards, yet the result is impeccable.  Just think of how advanced we’ve come with the tools of the trades.   I am sure there were many brawls and behavioral challenges, they did it with little designated supervision, and without an HR department.  The men were mostly compensated by the day or for piecework, and they either did their job and took wages home to their families or were kicked off the job and replaced.  If you wanted a paycheck, there was no hiding, whining or slacking off.

As we celebrate the holiday this week honoring Saint Patrick may we also celebrate the evolvement of the construction industry.  The history of those who build American stands strong and lives on in all of you who work give your best today.  Especially those of you who understand the importance of craftsmanship, communication, and commitment.

This link will give you access to view “I Am Patrick”.  May his feistiness inspire you to believe in yourself, believe in our nation, and to believe in the difference you can make everyday by giving your best to those on your team.  The Projects you help build are making history.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day,

Suzanne Breistol


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