When work began on the restoration of the American Irish Historical Society on Fifth Avenue in May 2006, few people realized how direly in need of refurbishment the building had
actually become. One year later it's re-emerging again, but this time transformed into a state of the art museum, library and cultural center fit for the 21st century. CAHIR O'DOHERTY meets Society President Dr. Kevin Cahill and enjoys a sneak preview of the dramatic changes in store.
BY the spring of last year the venerable old American Irish Historical Society townhouse at 991 Fifth Avenue in New York was like an old dowager in the last decade of her life - still stately and imposing, but softer around the edges and looking more and more like the end was finally in sight. For many it was hard to admit that the old girl was on her last legs, but the truth had to be faced - the famous library was dark and poorly ventilated, entire wings had to be closed off to flooding when it rained, and people were known to fan themselves with quite remarkable vigor during the weekly lectures (it was always either too hot or too cold, year round). Things simply had to change.
It is Irish America's good fortune that the society President Dr. Kevin Cahill takes such a keen interest in the promotion of the venue. With his hands on stewardship (and working closely with board members like Donald Keough, Bob Devlin, Maureen Bateman, Denis Kelleher and James P. Murphy and the Executive Council) every stage of the full-scale restoration project has been painstakingly overseen.
"The interior of the building was designed by Ogden Codman, of whom there are many books written. His biographer is a woman called Pauline Metcalf and she and other visitors from the Metropolitan Museum of Art have been over and told us that our restoration is possibly the best one they've ever seen. They are nominating it for landmark and restoration awards," Cahill told the Irish Voice.
The American Irish Historical Society itself began in 1897 when the founder members met in Boston to establish the organization whose motto was "that the world may know" how much the Irish had contributed to the making of the U.S.
The society bought its Fifth Avenue premises in 1940, in a move that was attended by Governor Al Smith and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and congratulated by society member President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Before they bought it, it had belonged to a widow and then to a banking executive, but the most famous master of the premises was William Corey Ellis, the then president of U.S. Steel who deserted his wife in a terrific scandal and lived there during his highly visible affair with a showgirl. It's the kind of storied past that delights newcomers and gives a sense of the building's place within a wider story.
For Cahill the restoration process has been a true labor of love. "The wonderful thing about all this is that we are able to restore and preserve the original colors and designs that Ogden Codman created. They were often painted over or placed behind plasterboard or veneer and we've been able to rescue them all.
"It took at least a couple of years before we started construction last May to do the preparations and we're hopeful of finishing within the next two months."
Although Codman's interior design work is widely celebrated in its own right, it so happens that the society can also boast the involvement of one of the nation's top architects and designers, George Lawson. "He did a lot of work for the Millennium Park in Chicago and now he's come to New York and taken on the redecoration. With his help we're at a stage now where we are close to completion. When we started, this building was so decrepit that my wife and I used to put down pillows covered with drapes so that people could sit down," Cahill said.
All of that bowing and scraping has changed utterly. Now there are state of the art temperature controls on every floor of the building to create and maintain pleasantly air-conditioned public spaces for lectures, readings and conferences - and to protect the large book collection from the ravages of humidity and time. Every brick in the building has been carefully re-pointed, a dynamic surround sound speaker system has been built into the walls of the lecture spaces and throughout the building so guests will clearly hear each event without seeing all the microphones and associated clutter.
Skylights and windows that were blacked out for decades have been rediscovered and restored, surpassing their former glory. Stained glass windows that were created in the Gilded Age have also been beautifully reinstated. To those who knew the society's building before the contractors came, the place has been so transformed for the better that it is at time almost unrecognizable.
MOS, the Yon-kers-based construction firm headed by one of the most well known general contractors in
the city, Mike O'Sullivan (working alongside his project manager Tom Lenihan), has a team working six days a week since May 2006.
"Even God rested on Sundays," quips Lenihan, adding that he welcomes Cahill's daily visits and suggestions, although he also playfully suspects that the president would have them working around the clock if he could.
While the ambitious renovations continue, the society has held its events in other welcoming venues like Fordham University at Lincoln Center, Regis High School and even the Pierre Hotel. Society events are still ongoing and in the interim new members can sign up for a membership online at the society website, www.aihs.org.
As with any not-for-profit society, raising the cash to preserve and pass on the building is an ongoing work. But Cahill can justifiably boast that the building is being prepared for the next 100 years of its life, and so it is to be hoped that those who care about Irish America will see the value of this endeavor and vote with their check books.
Chris Cahill, the historian and fellow officer of the society board is also excited by the dramatic changes. "This is a real turning point in the history of the society. With the renovation it's a real opportunity to raise our profile, expand our membership and let the world know what goes
on there. We hope to welcome a new generation of Irish and Irish American people in to use
the library and attend the events," he says.
According to Dr. Cahill, the construction work will be done by the summer. There will then be a period where the books and furniture will have to be brought back. Currently there's no set in stone date for unveiling the restorations.
"But the American Irish Historical Society was founded on the 22nd of January of 1897 and I would think we should have a formal reopening and a series of events around that time," Dr. Cahill said.
The dedication of the construction workers is remarkable, Dr. Cahill acknowledges, as is their attention to minute detail.
"Their dedication came from their own dedication to the ideals of the society and its mission. They have striven to bring the building to its full potential and they have succeeded," he says.
After all they did two things - they brought it up to the level of a world class contemporary museum and they've also restored and preserved it as an important historical landmark too. I think it's a very exciting time for the society and I think it will be an asset to Irish America and indeed anyone interested in Irish history and culture."
Tom Lenihan, the project manager, takes a look back at the massive restoration project he's been working on for a year now. "All of this was built by union workers," he says proudly. "And you know what? Next St. Patrick's Day when we march past the doors of the society we'll all feel proud that we brought it to its full potential."