Subscribe for 99¢

ST. LOUIS • On high catwalks shrouded in a wrap of brown screen, workers are using jackhammers and chain saws to replace and patch the crumbling limestone of the Old Cathedral’s bell tower.

It’s part of a major restoration of the 179-year-old landmark church next to the Gateway Arch. When work is completed next summer, the Old Cathedral will have a repaired stone front and steeple, refinished wooden floors and pews, and new windows, air-conditioning and lighting.

The $12 million project is about half finished. It cost $63,360 to build the church, which was completed in 1834.

But 18 decades of rain, ice and pollution have badly damaged some of the light-brown limestone of the church’s south-facing front face, four main columns and tower. Stones are cracked, eroded, sometimes even missing large chunks.

The stone tower rises 100 feet above ground, topped by a copper-covered steeple and gold-painted cross. The tip is 135 feet high.

The walls of the bell tower are three feet thick, weighing in at 100 tons. It actually has settled downward 2.5 inches, cracking some of the stones beneath it. But Clyde Schwartz, project superintendent for Musick Construction Co. of Brentwood, said the tower is structurally sound.

“When you figure all the years of construction, pile-driving and digging that has gone on all around this place, it has held up very well,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz said workers are replacing some or all of about 120 stones, weighing from 200 to 3,200 pounds each. They used diamond-blade chain saws to cut away the most-damaged ones. A high crane lifts replacements to the proper locations, and workers manually shove them into place.

How do they do that?

“Very carefully,” said Tim Elders, one of the crew.

Elders works for Superior Waterproofing and Restoration Co., a subcontractor. He and the others work along the narrow catwalks of a 12-level metal scaffold that surrounds the bell tower. Damaged stones are marked for complete or partial replacement. With some of them, workers grind away several inches of exterior damage and fit them with new facings.

When that work is done, new stones will be stained to match the color of adjoining light-brown originals, he said.

The front of the church was built with stone quarried in Joliet, Ill. Replacements are Wisconsin limestone. The white-stone sides of the church are not part of the project.

The Old Cathedral is the fourth structure built on the original church lot set aside by St. Louis’ founders, replacing ones of wood and brick. Still called the Old Cathedral, its formal name is the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France. (Its replacement, the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica at 4431 Lindell Boulevard, is known as the “New Cathedral” even though its first Mass was celebrated in 1914.)

The Rev. Richard Quirk, assistant pastor at the Old Cathedral, said more than half of the money for the restoration has been raised. The Archdiocese of St. Louis will hold a special collection at all parishes on Oct. 27 to continue the effort.

This is the second major restoration of the old church, which received $600,000 in upgrades in the early 1960s.

Some of that, including carpeting, is being undone. Quirk said work will move indoors this winter and include refinishing the original maple floor, pews and choir-loft railings to their natural wood colors.

“Our goal is to be as historically consistent as possible,” Quirk said.

Even with the exterior racket, he said, the Old Cathedral remains a hot location for weddings. He said one party recently donned hard hats to play along. But the wedding business will halt temporarily in January, when most of the interior work begins.

The Old Cathedral is the second downtown landmark to get some serious stonework. The Old Courthouse, one block away, was fitted with more than 500 new cornice stones in 2012 at a cost of $3.5 million. The original parts of the courthouse were built shortly before the Old Cathedral.

Schwartz said workers high on the bell tower have noticed several bullet holes in the steeple — testament to the towering height of the steeple in the river-hugging city of old.

3 O'Clock Stir e-newsletter

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.