After three attempts, the new ceiling color for St. Mary Catholic Church finally passed muster. It’s a shade called secret cove, a blue hue chosen to represent the transition from sky into heaven, and one that radiated against the 22-karat gold stars that two artisans were painting into the ceiling of the 126-year-old church this week.
Recreating the celestial feeling above the sacred alter is just one of the details exacting perfection from both the parish priest, Fr. John Hilton, and the scores of planners and workers who are in the final lap of the year-long reconstruction of St. Mary’s, which is aiming for a June return to Mass in its second floor sanctuary. Since Holy Week in March, Fr. Hilton has held services in the renovated first floor community rooms.
During the previous 10 months of the $7.2 million renovation, Mass was accommodated across town at the Aspen Community Church, with help from Harris Hall and Bumps to fill in the gaps on big occasions like Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day. This was believed to have been the first time since the 1880s that Catholic Mass was celebrated outside the one-block St. Mary’s campus in downtown Aspen.
So the return to home grounds is welcome, but not before more fine-tuning of elements such as the intricate lines painted into the faux wooden beams by a team from Evergreene Architectural Arts. When contractors led by Structural Associates initially delved in, they discovered the ceiling’s fragility, while also unearthing gems like Victorian stencil drawings and 1890s wood boards bearing advertisements behind layers of paint and plaster.
“It’s a building whose time has come,” said Fr. Hilton on Friday, about the renovation process which he has carefully overseen. “St. Mary’s is one of the great Aspen treasures.”
Hilton said while the renovation, which is now about $300,000 over budget, respects the church’s history as one of Aspen’s oldest structures, “It’s also going to function as a comfortable, modern building.”
“To take this iconic, beautiful building where people have celebrated Mass for 125 years” requires a special kind of “restoration and renewal” and, if needed, some cost overruns in order to get it right, he said.
“This really is a renovation for the next 125 years,” Hilton said. “It simply deserves it.”
Amplifying the historic fabric
No detail is too small in the home stretch of an ambitious remodel. In the initial planning, the project aspired to construct an auxiliary building in the church yard that has a rich history of its own, including the plot where the original, 1880s-era St. Stephens Church once served Aspen Catholics.
The auxiliary building plan was eventually abandoned in favor of retrofitting the 1892 church for at least another century of life. That included a remodel of the kitchen, bathrooms and community spaces on the main floor, which over the years have hosted everything from catechism classes, First Communion receptions to the popular St. Patrick’s Day dinner.
Upstairs, beams that are actually made of Styrofoam but meant to look like oak are hand painted with fine brushes to blend in with the contiguous and original woods.
“We wanted to amplify the historic fabric,” said Marina Skiles, senior project architect with Charles Cunniffe Architects. A first rendering of painted wood looked too much like pine, so Skiles commanded another round of painting by Michael Irvin and Joe Bachelor of Evergreene Architectural Arts in order to create the more oak-like finish.
The reliefs that will be painted offsite and applied to the walls should replicate as closely as possible the original colors found inside the church, she noted.
Those honored in the pictorials will represent a greater cross section of Catholic influencers than in the past and include a new procession of “20th century saints that are very relevant,” according to Hilton.
A 14-year-old boy who was martyred by the Mexican government, a female pediatrician, St. Teresa of Calcutta and St. Therese of Lisieux are among the visages planned.
Modern touches sidle by history
Before scaffolding came down from the second floor this week, it was possible to walk high above the church floor to observe not only the artisans at work on the ceiling but also enjoy a rare perspective of the stained glass windows. That includes the rose window on the Main Street side, whose luminance has been dampened since a 1990s renovation that added a large pipe organ.
A reconfiguration of the cry room and the confessionals, along with a spiral staircase that replaced the traditional stairs, will allow for a clear view from the church’s entrance all the way to the alter.
The organ was also raised about nine feet above the narthex, or entrance lobby, “so we gained all that square footage,” Fr. Hilton said. “We were able to expose that beautiful rose window which hasn’t been on view for 30 years.”
These are the kind of elements that will allow more natural light to shine into the church, which retained its capacity of about 350. Many other original elements from 1892 remain as well, including the alters, pews, crucifix, the baptismal font which holds the holy water, the stained glass windows which have been re-leaded by a local artisan and the historic windows, which have been repaired.
Solid wood flooring has been reintroduced, after the red carpeting that covered vinyl flooring from a more recent era was replaced.
Also getting a facelift are the original statues — St. Aloysius Gonzaga, St. Patrick, St. Joseph, two angles and Jesus — which are being repainted and restored by hand.
The priest said that crews had to peel “layer after layer” of paint off the statues, which had their makeup done previously from a spray paint gun.
The St. Joseph statue will also receive a replacement staff.
“Instead of holding nothing all these years, he’ll be holding a staff,” Hilton said.
The church is not on the National Register of Historic Places and the city Historic Preservation Commission’s oversight of the project is only to its exterior, according to Amy Simon, city of Aspen historic planner.
“HPC was invited to walk through the remodel a few months back and I reviewed the building permit just to ensure that any exterior impacts (like mechanical equipment) were being handled with sensitivity to the historic structure,” Simon said this week via email.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the sanctuary,” she added.
A mid-June move-in is planned, according to Skiles.
Skiles said while the HPC did approve a new front porch design — the current entrance is not original — that facet of the remodel won’t take place until the fall.
Follow Madeleine on Twitter, @Madski99