On April 14, 2019, a fire broke out in a historical art storage crypt in the basement of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Though the fire was quickly extinguished, billowing smoke spared no surface in the church from soot and odor contamination. Church officials were distraught. They needed the church operational for Easter and completely restored by Christmas. The cathedral is  one of the largest in the world at 120,000 square feet and with 125-foot ceilings — a daunting place to clean.


The insurer’s relationship with FIRST ONSITE meant restoration could begin immediately, with a three-phase strategy. The first phase involved sealing off the fire area and cleaning anything parishioners might touch. A crew of 80 worked around the clock, removing soot and de-odorizing walls, floors, and hundreds of seats. Priceless antique pews and other items required particular care. Thanks to the team’s work, the church was usable by Holy Thursday, three days ahead of schedule.


The next step focused on restoring the basement and removing the overwhelming smoke smell. The fire-damaged space was used as a studio and storage for hundreds of artifacts and antiques. Valuable items were removed, and the rest cleaned and stored off-site. An exhaust system was set up to remove smoke odor. The team next worked tirelessly to clean and sanitize a pre-school classroom, allowing classes to resume 24 hours later.

The real challenge was in cleaning the basement architecture, made of granite and fragile tile, above a rocky, uneven floor. An amphitheater, chapels, and the tombs of two bishops also occupied the space. FIRST ONSITE worked with an engineering firm, historic conservator, and cathedral staff to devise a plan. They filled the floor with gravel, leveled it, and lay down plywood, allowing them to safely build 60-foot scaffolds to reach the basement’s arches and stained-glass windows. Surfactants and degreaser, soot sponges, and HEPA vacuuming were used to restore and protect the original building materials. Three months later, FIRST ONSITE had completely restored the basement without damage.

With only five months until Christmas, FIRST ONSITE moved to the third phase: cleaning, de-odorizing, and restoring the church interior, including the altar, gilded fixtures, a massive pipe organ, and one of the biggest stained-glass windows in the world. A free-standing, 18-level scaffold was painstakingly constructed above the altar and around priceless fixtures to access the 125-foot ceilings, a process that took 13 weeks. The lead in the windows and in the pipe organ was cause for concern, but the team was able to restore both without contamination. In fact, over eight months and almost 25,000 working hours, no injuries or illnesses were reported.


All told, 40 areas were restored, including crypts, sacristies, antique wood altars, storage spaces, stone spiral staircases, facility offices, an attic, a gift shop, an art gallery, and a complex HVAC system, all while services continued to be held. The project involved coordinating with the city, conservators, engineers, and insurers. With daily field reports and weekly meetings, the restoration team kept stakeholders informed.

FIRST ONSITE finished the job a week before Christmas and $1 million under budget. While at times the challenges seemed insurmountable, the crew stayed grounded by thinking about the church community. A community they now felt part of.

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