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Basilica undergoes restoration work

Kaitlynn Riely | Thursday, August 28, 2008

One of the most iconic buildings on Notre Dame’s campus has taken on a different look in the last few months, as an intricate scaffolding system has been erected around the front of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart to facilitate scheduled renovations.

The $1.8 million renovation began shortly after commencement last May and is on schedule, said Associate Vice President and University Architect Doug Marsh. The scaffolding, which will take about a month to deconstruct, will begin coming down in the next couple of weeks, he said.

The restoration process is repairing the damage done to the Basilica by a storm during Senior Week in May 2007, but Marsh said repair work to the exterior of the Basilica – including fixing aged and weathered wood or metal, applying new paint, repairing mortar joints and any broken brick and re-gilding the cross at the top of the Basilica – was already scheduled to take place before the storm.

Strong winds associated with severe thunderstorms swept through campus on the Tuesday of Senior Week 2007, knocking off one of the four minor spires from the bell tower of the Basilica. The front-left spire shattered southeast of the Basilica’s main entrance during the storm, which also damaged dozens of trees on campus.

Shortly after the storm, Marsh said, the roof of the Basilica was inspected and the metal pieces of the three remaining small spires – the “metal hats” – were removed for “preventative” reasons.

Part of the current renovation process entails rebuilding the spires and installing reinforcing steel, Marsh said.

University Sacristan John Zack, as well as other staff at the Basilica, has worked closely with the University Architect’s office to direct the project, Zack and Marsh both said. No services at the Basilica have been interrupted as a result of the construction, Zack said.

The Basilica underwent a major interior restoration about 20 years ago, Marsh said, and at that time, some repair work was done on the outside of the building, but not to the extent that renovations are taking place now.

Marsh said he has not heard much feedback about the temporarily altered appearance of the Basilica.

“People obviously know that we need to reinvest in all of our facilities, especially our most cherished ones, and our most aged ones,” he said.

The cornerstone of the Basilica was laid in 1871, Marsh said, and the first Eucharist was celebrated there in 1875.

Zack said some people have commented to him about the appearance of the Basilica.

“I think they are intrigued by it, because there is so much of it there,” he said. “It surrounds the whole steeple.”

Sophomore John Ahearn said it was “unfortunate” that parents of freshmen and returning students had to see the Basilica surrounded in scaffolding on their arrival or return to campus. But he said, “if it makes it safer, all the better.”

According to the Basilica’s Web site, the distance to the top of the cross on the bell tower is 230 feet, which makes the top tip of the cross the highest point on campus. The Web site reports that the Basilica receives 50,000 visitors each year.

Scaffolding surrounded the Golden Dome of the Main Building in 2005, during a re-gilding process that installed a new layer of 28.9 karat gold leaf. Marsh said the Dome renovation was a larger project.

“Both are challenging because you are working very high up in the air,” he said. “And workers are taking tools up by hand. It’s all very labor intensive work. But both have gone well and according to plan and on schedule.”