Keeping Up Appearances

The American Irish Historical Society's magnificent building on Fifth Avenue in New York has just undergone a $5 million renovation, and will officially reopen this weekend. CONN CORRIGAN gets the guided tour.THE current exhibition in the American Irish Historical Society's home on Fifth Avenue in New York doesn't show great Irish American writers or politicians, as one might expect. Instead, under headings such as "demolition," "restoration," "plumbing" and "electric," ,the make-shift exhibition depicts the various states of this magnificent building's most recent renovation, with many photos showing rooms stripped to their shell. That was over the course of its two-year restoration. Walk around today and you will find a building which, apart from a few bits and pieces, has been restored to its former glory, and will formally re-open on Sunday, March 16.Finally, said Dr. Kevin Cahill, the president-general of the society, "we have a building for the 21st century."It has been some time since the building, which will host various concerts and lectures over the coming months, enjoyed much glory. According to Dr. Cahill, before the restoration the building was "in a state of utter disrepair." The masonry on the stone faade needed to be re-pointed and repaired. The front door needed to be restored. The basement was the subject of persistent flooding because of the sewers on Fifth Avenue. The electrical systems and plumbing needed major overhauls. What was required, essentially, said Chris Cahill, the society's executive director (and son of Dr. Cahill) "was for the entire building from top to bottom to be renovated." The result, which took two years of work and $5 million, is a thoroughly modern building that retains its distinctive original character. The current home of the American Irish Historical Society was built in 1900, three years before the society was founded by Theodore Roosevelt and others to make "better known the Irish part in American history." It was designed by the firm of Turner and Killian, and was considered an exemplary model of the Beaux Arts style of architecture. In 1911, its interiors were redone by renowned architect and interior designer Ogden Codman Junior.The first owner of the townhouse was Mary King who, according to Chris Cahill, had five Irish servants. She lived upstairs in the servants' quarters. She was followed by a bank executive's widow, who then sold it to William Ellis Corey, the president of U.S. Steel, who scandalized New York's high society by having an affair with a show girl who was housed in the building. He lived in the building, which is opposite the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from 1918 to 1934, and left it to his son, who sold it to the society six years later for $20,000. The society has become very much identified with the Cahill family. Dr. Cahill, who features annually in Irish America magazine's "Top 100 Irish Americans" list, is a world authority on tropical medicine and was the grand marshal of the St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York in 2000. The rooms of his doctor's office on Fifth Avenue, 14 blocks down from the society, are overflowing with honorary doctorate degrees and awards, and in his waiting room one can read a sample of the incredibly diverse range of books he has authored or edited over the years on topics such as humanitarian assistance, tropical medicine, Irish literature and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Pope John Paul II, Cardinal John O'Connor and Leonard Bernstein have been his patients over the years. "When I took over in 1974, the society had about $3,000 in the bank and a big hole in the roof," Dr. Cahill said. "We were close to being bankrupt and were in a pretty destitute state. It's amazing to think of this when you look at where we are now." His son Chris has been the editor of The Recorder, the society's highly regarded journal, since 1994, and was the founder and director of CUNY's Institute for Irish American Studies. He was also the executive director of the Pace University Institute for American Irish Studies. "I've known this building and society since I was a child," he said, "because of my father's involvement." Today, he devotes himself full time to the American Irish Historical Society, and has been busy overseeing the society's restoration.Dr. Cahill, who can be seen in one of the photos of the building's renovation wearing his white medical coat and yellow hard hat, said that much of the credit for the building today must go to the contractor, Michael O'Sullivan, the man also responsible for assembling the mini photo exhibition that chronicles the building's renovation. "When we started," said Dr. Cahill, "I said to Michael, 'I'd like to come by each morning.' And he said, 'Well, come by at 7 a.m.' And I said, 'But I have to be at the hospital by 6:30 a.m.' So he replied, 'So come by at 6 a.m., then.' That gives you an idea of the level of devotion and commitment that went into the project." The success of the renovation, according to Chris Cahill, was that "the historic preservation of the building went hand in glove with modernization," a point echoed by the main preservation architect on the project, Joseph Pell Lombardi."The biggest challenge was to make a modern building - to install heating, air conditioning, a fire alarm system, and humidity control - while keeping the building's original character," said Lombardi.To retain the building's integrity original drawings made by Ogden Codman Junior, which were stored in the New York City Department of Buildings, were consulted, as well as other material from Codman's files that are archived across the street in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.George Larson, a highly-regarded interior architect who has written two books on Chicago architecture, was also brought on board to complement the work of Lombardi. Larson, who worked as an interior architectural consultant on the project, said that he spoke to Dr. Cahill about a year and a half ago about the project, and that he has since become "enamored" with the building. "It's been a wonderful collaboration in restoring it to all its glory," Larson added. The expertise of the society's neighbor, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was also used in the restoration process. The chairman of its American Wing, Morrison Heckscher, said that the Met was able to offer "a little advice" on the project as needed. "I think what Dr. Cahill has done is superb," Heckscher said. "It's a model of how to treat an architectural landmark in the 21st century." In a guided tour given to the Irish Voice, Chris Cahill explains that there are still some challenges to overcome in the storage of the society's estimated 12,000 books as well as its many manuscripts and newspapers, which include copies of the Belfast Newsletter that date back to the late 18th century. Kevin Kenny, a professor of history at Boston College, remembers studying in the society's library some 20 years ago as a graduate student at Columbia University. "In those days the society gave generous open access to professional researchers like myself," said Kenny, "but the archive was very poorly organized and many materials, without temperature regulation or proper storage, were in an advanced state of decay. Other researchers I talked to over the years shared this parlous impression." Kenny would be pleased to know, then, that all of the main rooms in the society today are equipped with temperature control - while he was a student there, only the rare books room had this feature.Now, the society's library, and the various academic treasures it holds, will be open to the latest generation of historians and researchers. "We are now committed," said Dr. Cahill, "for another 110 years - not only for scholars, but for the general public."The American Irish Historical Society is located at 991 Fifth Avenue in New York. Call 212-288-2263 or visit www.aihs.org.

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