Local firm refurbishing pews at St. Patrick's Cathedral

Keck Group half done with massive project to restore 400 pews to impeccable condition

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  • Keck workers breaking down pews for removal (Photo: keckgroup.com)

  • St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City (Photo: keckgroup.com)

“We take great care in making sure the end result is excellent. As we go through every step — taking the finish off, prepping, sanding, finishing — we have to apply best practices and tremendous attention to detail."
Bob Koeck

— This year has seen the kickoff of the biggest full-scale restoration in the history of New York’s legendary St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And for the Keck Group, a niche company based in Middletown, the project has presented the most high-profile opportunity yet to show what it can do.

On St. Patrick’s Day last year, work started on a massive restoration that has involved everything from exterior and interior masonry to plaster, cast concrete, stain glass, bronze doors, and a wide variety of wood surfaces.

'The heart of the city'

The story of New York’s great cathedral mirrors the story of the city itself. Created to affirm the ascendance of religious freedom and tolerance, St. Patrick’s Cathedral was built in the democratic spirit, paid for not only by the contributions of thousands of poor immigrants but also by the largesse of 103 prominent citizens who pledged $1,000 each. St. Patrick’s Cathedral proves the maxim that no generation builds a cathedral. It is rather, a kind of ongoing conversation linking generations past, present and future.
The cornerstone of St. Patrick’s Cathedral was laid in 1858 and her doors swept open in 1879. It was over 150 years ago when Archbishop John Hughes announced his inspired ambition to build the “new” St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
In a ceremony at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Archbishop Hughes proposed “for the glory of Almighty God, for the honor of the Blessed and Immaculate Virgin, for the exaltation of Holy Mother Church, for the dignity of our ancient and glorious Catholic name, to erect a Cathedral in the City of New York that may be worthy of our increasing numbers, intelligence, and wealth as a religious community, and at all events, worthy as a public architectural monument, of the present and prospective crowns of this metropolis of the American continent.”
Ridiculed as “Hughes’ Folly,” as the proposed, near-wilderness site was considered too far outside the city, Archbishop Hughes, nonetheless, persisted in his daring vision of building the most beautiful Gothic Cathedral in the New World in what he believed would one day be “the heart of the city.” Neither the bloodshed of the Civil War nor the resultant lack of manpower or funds would derail the ultimate fulfillment of Hughes’ dream and architect, James Renwick’s bold plan.
After several weeks of fund raising efforts through The Great Cathedral Fair in October and November of 1878, his successor and the first American cardinal, John Cardinal McCloskey presided over the dedication of the Cathedral on May 25, 1879.
From the St. Patrick's Cathedral website: saintpatrickscathedral.org.

Bob Koeck, the company’s founder, said no challenge is more important than the cathedral 400 pews, each measuring between 10 and 20 feet in length. Koeck has already overseen the complete refinishing of 200 pews that are now ready to install. His firm, specialists in church pew restoration since 1972, was hired to restore the pews to impeccable condition.

“We take great care in making sure the end result is excellent,” Koeck said. "As we go through every step — taking the finish off, prepping, sanding, finishing — we have to apply best practices and tremendous attention to detail."

The Keck Group has done work for churches as far away as Corpus Christi, Texas, although the company typically works in the eastern United States. The firn has grown since its early days, from 6,000 square feet of operation to 25,000 today, and has 13 full-time employees. The work is complex and challenging, requiring precise care and intensive training for team members tasked with delivering a perfect finish.

Unprecedented scope
While this is not the first time St. Patrick’s Cathedral has called on The Keck Group for help with pew restoration, the project is unprecedented in its size and scope.

“I would say it’s the most prestigious project we’ve done,” said Koeck.

If not for the gradual pace of the project, Koeck says its size could have presented a serious challenge. The Keck Group’s normal production is 400 feet worth of pews per week. St. Patrick’s Cathedral has 4,000 feet of pews all by itself — but the project is happening over a two-year period that allows The Keck Group to stay on schedule and still handle its normal workload from other churches.

"A project this large would be one-fifth of our annual volume if it was done all at once," said Koeck. "But since it’s being done over a two-year period everything has been able to stay on schedule.”

Ron Pennella, who is heading the restoration project for St. Patrick’s Cathedral, said The Keck Group won the job as a result of a rigorous bidding process that considered experience and skill, as well as price.

“They have history with the cathedral, they’re a local vendor, and I’ve worked with them before in the past,” Pennella said. “And Bob is a great guy. But at the end of the day it all came down to their qualifications, experience, and eventually price, which is a driving issue in today’s market.”

According to Rolando Kraeher, who serves as project architect and manager from the firm Murphy, Burnham and Buttrick, the challenging nature of the project made the type of experience offered by The Keck Group an absolute must.

“You don’t want to hire someone who has no experience, otherwise we would have to be holding their hands,” Kraeher said. “There is a lot of craftsmanship that goes into this, and as the architect you can’t specify what the level of finish needs to be and what they need to do, so you have to let the craftsman do their job – and that comes with experience. Bob Koeck and his company – they have it.”

For more information visit stpatrickscathedral.org.

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