Old meets new in award-winning cathedral architecture project


PROVIDENCE — Not every architectural firm can claim credit for a cathedral-sized restoration project. Even more impressive is when that project nets two prestigious awards. DBVW Architects, the company that undertook the exterior restoration of the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul in Providence, hit the nail on the head, recently receiving an award from the Rhode Island chapter of the American Institute of Architects in December and more recently were informed that they won the Faith and Form International Award for Religious Architecture: Restoration, which will be awarded later this year.
Pierson Booher served as the project manager of the cathedral restoration, with Michael Viveiros as the principal in charge, whose job it was to oversee every detail of the project. Booher spoke of the project’s importance and the impact of winning two awards for it. “This is exciting for all of us, including the diocese, because it really kind of validates the investment and the level of care that the diocese really put into this project. They have a building that is beautiful and it’s a landmark within the city,” he said, noting that the cathedral’s original building materials have naturally degraded due to the effects of time, “and so as a result, it required a special level of care.”
An architect doesn’t always see a project through from bidding process to completion, but Booher did on this one. One aspect of this project that stood out to him was how his company was able to bring together the new and the old, bringing new methods to beautify something old. DBVW specializes in historic preservation, Booher stated, and his team often works on existing buildings. However, to get the best overall view of what was needed for the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul, the firm employed some highly sophisticated pieces of modern technology.
The first was a team called Vertical Access that combines rock climbing techniques with architectural skills to physically examine tall buildings for historic preservation. Members of the team “rappelled down each side of the towers and recorded stone by stone the conditions they were finding,” Booher said, even removing some loose pieces of brownstone and bringing them down to the construction team for further analysis.
After this up-close examination, DBVW utilized high-tech drones to obtain 3-dimensional laser scans and hi-resolution photos “that we used to generate our drawings, and then we could indicate exactly where certain repairs needed to be made,” Booher continued. “It was kind of this fun use of our knowledge working with existing buildings and then utilizing modern technology to really take it to another level, to really benefit all parties in the team.”
These visualizations showed the extent of the work needed to keep the cathedral in the best condition possible for years to come, including accurate cost analysis.
The structural integrity of the cathedral was not the only concern for the team at DBVW. More than 130 years after its construction, neither of the two materials the cathedral had been built from were still quarried. The roof, originally crafted from Monson Slate, came from Maine and Booher believes that the quarry stopped producing it around 40 years ago. The Portland brownstone, so named because of the Connecticut town where it had been quarried, which shut down in the 1930s, had been a part of the “brownstone boom” of the late 19th and early 20th century. Since these once-local materials proved harder to find, Booher and his team looked farther afield, spending years searching for a good color and performance match, even looking at samples from as far away as India and China.
“Everything was done with an eye toward blending in, so we really had this beautiful end product, but we were also trying to create a long-term, well-performing building at the end of the day. And credit goes to the diocese for really identifying that as a guiding principle at the beginning,” Booher said.
He also credits the team at Consigli Construction in Massachusetts, who was brought in during the design part of the project.
“They provided the driving force behind a lot of those logistical considerations,” and their specialists located the best materials sources and analyzed them – sometimes starting the process all over again when the pandemic wreaked havoc on those sources.
Winning two awards — one being an international award — is an honor for any architecture firm. When asked what the significance of this project was for DBVW, Booher said that: “It’s funny, we work on a lot of building envelope restoration projects and so I supposed maybe I get a little jaded by the fact that – I have kind of asked myself ‘Why this project? Why did this happen to succeed?’ and I think part of it is what it represents to the city, to the diocese; I think it’s a really important location and I think it’s iconic.”
More than that, though, he spoke of the “absolute buy-in from all sides,” pointing out the diocese’s decision to proactively examine the entire structure and seek out the best materials to maintain its beauty and safety. He also noted the high level of craftsmanship involved, including skills such as stone carving. “We think of it almost like a dying trade sometimes; we’re running out of quality masons who can carve things by hand … and it feels like a skill from yesteryear, but at the same time we’re using drones equipped with hi-resolution cameras and laser scanners. Putting them on the same job is interesting.”
Booher believes that the skilled craftsmanship juxtaposed with the high-tech drone imagery stood out to the judges and earned DBVW this high honor from Faith and Form, Partners for Sacred Places and Interfaith Design.
Vicar of Finance Msgr. Raymond B. Bastia said the diocese is very pleased with the overall work done to restore the cathedral, as well as the fact that those improvements are gaining such widespread attention.
“Obviously we’re very pleased to know that these efforts were so widely recognized, especially since they were significant challenges for us to engage and to complete. So, it’s really gratifying to know that they’ve come out so well, the design was so appropriate that it was recognized even beyond our local circle in the state,” Msgr. Bastia said.