CAGC Recognizes Best Building Project: St. John the Baptist Cathedral Restoration

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The Carolinas AGC bestowed the 2010 Best Building Project Pinnacle Award to the St. John the Baptist Cathedral Restoration in Charleston, SC.  This 100-year-old “mother church” of the Catholic diocese of South Carolina had never had a steeple; this project involved fabricating and erecting an 85-foot steeple as well as extensive exterior brownstone replacement. It fell primarily to Hightower Construction Co., Inc, who acted as both general contractor and the steeple fabricator, to think outside the box – in brainstorming, designing, restoring, and constructing the various elements.

For the exterior, over 2,500 eroded or weakened stones had to be individually removed and replaced with either new brownstone or, in the most vulnerable locations, a precast stone to match. A full 27 miles worth of mortar joints were painstakingly re-pointed. The goal of this phase: to deliver a building exterior that will be virtually maintenance-free for the next 100 years.

For the steeple addition, poor soil conditions underneath the Cathedral had threatened to limit the steeple height to a short tower, with a tall steeple being an acute concern in a hurricane-prone area such as Charleston. Thus the steeple was designed with an open lantern mid-section to allow airflow through two-thirds of the entire structure and to lighten the total weight.

In a unique marriage of contractor skills to a special challenge, Hightower applied its experience in building yachts. They suggested a cold mold method for building much of the steel frame structure. The inherent strength of the steel tied to the cold mold construction resulted in these outer archway towers deflecting only 1/8 inch over 28 feet when supported at each end only. The entire steeple structure, including the bell tower, was built in 30 separate pieces off-site, then transported down narrow historic streets to the Cathedral. The new steeple structure ultimately doubled the height of the existing building.

The spire itself is a stainless steel tee-pee clad in copper. The use of copper cladding and cast concrete on this project beautifully melds the old and the new, topped by a 16-foot gold-gilded cross. A large crowd was on hand to witness the final crane installation of the 85-foot steeple, for which fundraising efforts had begun in the 1960’s.

The team’s 20,000 work hours on this project with no OSHA recordable incidents included all specialty contractors on the site. All these work hours had to bend to a working church’s daily schedule, and were performed on a high profile site facing a major downtown throughway. And yet, the project was delivered within the owner’s desired time frame and at a cost substantially under budget.

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