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Lots of words could have been used to describe the downstairs Undercroft of the Cathedral of St. Joseph for its first 53 years of existence.
“Welcoming” probably wasn’t one of them.
The tube lighting, unfinished concrete floors and hospital-yellow cinder-block walls gave it a bunker vibe that no bunting or holiday lights could conceal.
“I’m really excited about the finishes we’re using down there,” said Abigail Steck Flippin, a principal architect with The Architects Alliance. “They’re practical and low-maintenance but tie very nicely into the Cathedral upstairs.”
The Undercroft, including its meeting hall, kitchen, restrooms and storage areas, is having its full potential realized as part of a thorough, yearlong renovation, expansion and renewal of the 53-year-old Cathedral.
The purpose is to upgrade the building’s aging systems while enhancing its beauty, functionality, capacity for hospitality and uniquely Catholic identity.
“The system upgrades are very necessary at this point in the building’s history, as is the emphasis on hospitality and better serving the needs of the community,” said Mrs. Flippin, a member of neighboring St. Martin Parish in St. Martins.
Cathedral of St. Joseph parish is paying the full cost of the Undercroft portion of the renovation, using some of the savings the parish has built up over the past several years.
“The work that’s been done really refreshes the space,” Mrs. Flippin stated. “It was not ever really completed down there. Now it’s going to be a finished space.”
Will be beautiful?
“Yes, I’d say it will be,” she stated.
“And technology that wasn’t available in the past can now be used to enhance the lighting and sound systems to help make it much more functional and versatile,” she said.
Form and function
A key addition to the Cathedral and Undercroft will be an elevator, enhancing access between the Cathedral’s upper and lower levels.
“We put the elevator into what was the north stairwell that wasn’t required for egress,” said Mrs. Flippin. “It will make it much easier for people to get downstairs after Mass.”
Previously, people who couldn’t navigate the stairs had to exit the Cathedral and walk or drive around to the Undercroft entrance on the opposite side, regardless of the weather.
“This will be a massive improvement in terms of welcoming and hospitality,” said Mrs. Flippin.
Other significant upgrades are under way in the Undercroft kitchen. Food service consultant Michael Key, who specializes in kitchen design and cooking equipment, consulted with the parish’s Knights of Columbus council and the organizers of various parish functions and funeral luncheons.
“We went through and evaluated all the equipment in there,” said Mrs. Flippin, “what was working and what was not, and all the different things this kitchen is used for. We also evaluated any issues of keeping the space clean and up to code and compliance with health regulations.”
The new kitchen will feature an expanded cooking line for a more efficient workflow, and an enlarged hood for better circulation and fire protection.
“Some of the equipment is staying that operated well,” said Mrs. Flippin. “The parish opted to replace the ranges, but people should be familiar with a lot of the equipment that’s still there.”
The kitchen will be a lot more versatile.
“You’ll be able to put down griddles to make pancakes for the breakfasts; fryers for the fish fry; or an extra range for the parish’s fall bazaar,” she said.
Cabinets, cases and freezers are being reworked or replaced, enhancing efficiency and organization.
“Overall, it won’t just look better, it will work better,” said Mrs. Flippin.
Epoxy floors, laminate cabinets, and FRP-fiber-reinforced plastic and stainless steel wall panels will make the kitchen easier to clean and maintain.
“It already feels brighter in there,” she said.
Strength and unity
Mrs. Flippin noted that many of the plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems in the Cathedral were nearing the end of their useful life and needed to be upgraded or replaced.
“We encountered critical issues with the aging systems that needed more-urgent repair, such as decayed or clogging pipes,” she stated. “They aren’t exciting or visible improvements but needed to be done.”
“It also gave us an opportunity to look at the lighting and audiovisual systems and incorporate the new technology that’s available,” she said.
For instance, people who use the Undercroft will be able to adjust the lighting in keeping with the purpose and mood for the gathering.
“You’ll have a lot more customization,” she said. “You’ll be able to adjust it for a wedding reception or a fish fry, a dinner or whatever you’re having.”
A new focal point has been created in the meeting area, with a wooden backdrop and two dropdown screens with ceiling-mounted projectors, making the room ideal for presentations.
“There are going to be a lot more options for how you can use the space,” she said.
The Cathedral’s and Undercroft’s design schemes will also be better unified.
“Were incorporating a lot of finishes that reference the Cathedral upstairs into the Undercroft, but with more of a casual take on it,” said Mrs. Flippin.
Display cases will be provided for the Knights of Columbus and the Scouts, helping to tie parish history into the new design.
Further upgrades are making the building more energy-efficient, including new windows with Low-E Glazing, which dramatically limits the amount of ultraviolet light that passes through the glass.
The new, more efficient mechanical system and the installation of LED lighting throughout the building will also reduce the building’s energy consumption, saving money and helping to take better care of creation.
The restrooms in the Undercroft, already modified for increased handicap-accessibility about 15 years ago, are getting new plumbing fixtures, new lighting, new wall finishes and a durable new epoxy floor covering.
Mrs. Flippin said people who enter the Undercroft will be struck with a “wow factor” that has been long missing.
“I think that’s especially important for diocesan functions,” she said.
In God’s hands
Construction in the Undercroft is still on target for having the parish’s weekend Masses moved there temporarily in November.
That will free up the school gymnasium, which has been doubling as a worship space since January, for other purposes.
“It’s been challenging,” Mrs. Flippin noted. “A lot of material delays have affected this project. But I think the contractor, Sircal Contracting, is doing a good job of pushing the work on the lower level so they can have access to it early.”
Mrs. Flippin and her colleagues at The Architects Alliance are working in collaboration with church architect William Heyer, architectural consultant for the renovation.
“We’re the local architect and the architect of record and have been handling the design work for the Undercroft,” Mrs. Flippin explained.
“We’ve done the record documents and are managing the construction administration for the entire project,” she said.
She is grateful to get to be involved with many of The Architect Alliance’s Catholic projects.
“I feel especially honored to work on this one, the Cathedral for our diocese,” she stated.
Mindful of Bishop W. Shawn McKnight’s request for prayers for the renovation, Mrs. Flippin asks the people of this diocese to pray especially for the safety of the people who are working on the project.
“Also,” she suggested, “with the challenges that we’re facing with material delays, pray that everything can stay on track and on schedule while they’re working on these projects.”
Work on the Cathedral is scheduled to be completed in early March.
Since the Cathedral serves everyone in the diocese, Bishop McKnight invites Catholics throughout these 38 counties to contribute toward the cost of the renovation, as long as doing so does not reduce their regular, sacrificial support of their own parish.
Visit diojeffcity.org/cathedral-renovation for information.