Church Work Is Honored

February 28, 2007
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Construction for religious organizations won a dozen of the 42 Awards of Excellence for 2006 from the West Michigan Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors.

Companies that worked on projects for Resurrection Life Church, St. Patrick’s of Parnell, the Marywood Health Center owned by the Dominican Order of Nuns, Genesis Methodist Church and the Basilica of St. Adalbert were honored at the organization’s annual ceremony.

Seven of those awards went to six firms for the construction of the new Resurrection Life Church in Grandville, while Owen-Ames-Kimball Co. was honored for its historical renovation of the Basilica.

The Basilica of St. Adalbert is an icon on the city’s near West Side at 701 Fourth St. NW and has just completed celebrating its 125th year. The Roman Catholic Church’s domes, towers and statuesque angels that herald its location have been clearly visible to motorists traveling on I-196 since the expressway was built more than 40 years ago. The church has been pictured in ads that highlight the city.

O-A-K, which won the prestigious ABC award, directed the renovation project that took $5.2 million and two years to complete. Bahr, VerMeer & Hacker Architects Ltd. of Omaha designed it.

“We are very pleased with the work that has been done in the restoration of the Basilica to date. The skilled craftsmen and artists, managers and workers who have contributed their talent and gifts have given new life to this magnificent structure,” said the Very Rev. Thomas De Young, Basilica pastor.

But the restoration isn’t finished, as more work needs to be done to the copper roofs on the three domes and to the area that has three altars.

“We are anxious to bring this entire project to completion,” added De Young.

The renovation’s first phase began in October 2003, a massive undertaking that involved a long list of individual projects.

On the exterior, tuck-pointing was done to the masonry and the stone walls were cleaned and repaired. All the concrete roof tiles were replaced with clay tiles, a job that required the Basilica’s bells to be lifted so the roofing could be laid below the towers. New copper gutters were installed. And metal siding, which matched the original limestone brick, was hammered into place to complement the central dome.

Delicate repairs were made to the Basilica’s interior. Most of the stained-glass windows were removed and repaired. Water-damaged plaster was patched and repainted. Additional marble wainscoting was installed. And the vaulted ceilings, which rise to nearly 40 feet in sections of the 100-year-old building, were repaired and replicated. Everything — the plaster cornices, arches and capitals — was perfectly duplicated.

The project added a new exterior entrance to the parish hall, which is on the lower level, and replaced the crumbling granite steps at the Basilica’s main entrance with concrete steps that have a granite surface and a snowmelt system. An elevator, a first for the church, was installed in the north tower. Two new bathrooms were built in the lower level and a new sound system brought the sanctuary into the digital age.

But perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the project was that all the worship services at the Basilica went on as planned during the renovation, despite scaffolds that wrapped tightly around the church’s exterior and were spread liberally throughout the interior.

There was so much scaffolding needed for the work that the side entrances to the Basilica were closed for a lengthy period. Two of the church’s three interior aisles were unusable for months, and large sections of pews were removed and stored for at least that long.

But the scaffolding wasn’t only a test for parishioners and church staff, as the system was one of the biggest challenges the renovation team faced.

“We hired an outfit out of Detroit that did some of the engineering on that. Getting access, especially up around the dome area, was quite challenging: challenging to erect the scaffolding and challenging to work off it. That certainly was one challenge — a very unique challenge on that project,” said Jim Schwass, O-A-K project manager, of the domes that are at least 50 feet up.

“The project lasted for two years, so they had some bad weather to deal with,” he added.

Schwass estimated that the Basilica spent from $170,000 to $180,000 just to lease the scaffolds for the work, with $110,000 of that amount going to the exterior scaffolding.

“The other challenge, of course, was maintaining the historical nature of that church. We had to be very careful in the tuck-pointing process and use the right kind of grout to try to match what was there,” said Schwass.

Another challenging and expensive project involved the restoration of the stained glass windows; 36 of 40 windows were restored.

“We did not restore the three windows in the sacristies, nor the one in the baptistry — that one is relatively new, circa 1950s. The total cost of the window restoration contract was $685,571 and does not include the separate contract for the interior painting of the frames of all these windows,” said De Young.

When the second phase is done, the total cost of the project will easily reach $7 million, as $2 million more will be needed to finish the church. It’s likely the Basilica will retain O-A-K Co. to direct Phase 2.

“The major items in this next phase will include the replacement of the copper roofs on the three large domes and the completion of the interior plaster repair and painting,” said De Young.

Schwass said replacing the copper roofing on the main dome and the domes that cover the two bell towers will be a more difficult task than was exchanging the concrete tiles for clay.

“Some highly skilled people will be involved with that and, again, we’re going to have to build another scaffolding system up there to access that. So it will be another very unique project,” he said.

St. Adalbert got its start as a small, wooden church in 1881 that held fewer than 500 worshippers. Parishioners spent 11 years and about $150,000 to build the beautiful church that today seats 1,500 and carries a cornerstone dated 1906. Pope John Paul II proclaimed St. Adalbert a basilica in 1979 and it remains today as the only basilica in Michigan.

But there is very little time for St. Adalbert to rest on its historic laurels, as the future is bringing parishioners another fundraising challenge they will have to meet in order to finish the project and keep the church’s tradition alive.

“The work will resume when we have raised the money to do it. This has been a tremendous undertaking for our relatively small parish community, which has given its heart and soul to it.

“Our commitment is as strong as that of our ancestors who constructed this Grand Rapids landmark 100 years ago,” said De Young.

“As we prepare the final phase of this massive project, we welcome the assistance of the entire West Michigan community in preserving this historic facility.”     CQX

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