Uncovering Architectural Beauty Like Never Before at Saint Thomas

by | Aug 11, 2021 | News

The Saint Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan has been a fixture of the city’s Episcopalian community for over a century. Established in 1842, Saint Thomas is a marvelous piece of architecture, with soaring ceilings and classic gothic revival detailing. It was an honor being one of the IESNYC judges to witness this majestical 2021 Award of Excellence design by Renfro Design Group who was chosen to illuminate the architectural beauty of the church.

Recently, I sat down with the design team, which consisted of Richard Renfro, Sarah Randall, Silvia Mazzarri, Fabio Tuchiya, and Jenny Stafford. Sarah, Silvia, and Fabio were able to provide some fascinating insight into the design process, which, it seems, was very much hands-on from start to finish. The Saint Thomas facilities manager, who worked tirelessly with Renfro Design, is ironically named Angel Estrada.

Renfro Design Group had been a long-time partner of the church, beginning with a lighting project in 2000, in which an unfortunate electrical fire in the church necessitated a complete overhaul of its lighting and controls system. At that time, supplemental lighting was added to complement the decorative chandeliers. The exciting innovation at that time was using control systems to dim down the incandescent light bulbs to 90% for extended lamp life, reduced maintenance, and increased energy efficiency.

After the successful completion of that project, Renfro was then bought back in 2006 when the church decided to undergo an almost decade-long project to restore the iconic stained-glass windows. Like many churches of this style, one of the most important central design elements of the building are the intricate stained-glass windows. In the case of Saint Thomas, these windows make up almost half of the entirety of the soaring nave, with dazzling colors depicting intricate biblical scenes. While undoubtedly these windows themselves add to the magnificent lighting in the interior of the church, it is actually their recent restoration, surprisingly, that provided the church a unique opportunity to revitalize the interior lighting design. In order to maintain usage of the church while the restoration above took place, all of the lighting sources were moved down to a level below the windows.

With the windows fully restored in 2015, instead of simply putting those same fixtures back to their original position, Saint Thomas Church and Renfro instead used the circumstance as a unique opportunity to modernize the lighting. This process centered around implementing LED technology into the church which had previously only used incandescent lighting

Lighting Design: Renfro Design Group;
REREDOS: Ketra, ETC, Q-Tran, Mountain Productions, Inc.;
ORGAN, NAVE AND SIDE AISLES: Edison Price Lighting, Aurora Lampworks, Soraa;  Photo Credit: Renfro Design Group

After the windows, the second major component of the project was re-lighting the reredos or the stone carvings behind the altar which is an exquisite architectural and decorative element in the church. At almost 80 feet tall, lighting the reredos was a significant challenge. Before 2000 a 40-foot-tall-boom was used to mount the light fixtures, but the light could only reach up 40 feet out of the 80 feet. In 2000, Renfro replaced the boom with a 60-foot tall, motorized track system that allowed incandescent lighting to reach higher up the reredos. And in 2015 a wirelessly controlled LED system was installed in two rows to replace the incandescent lighting.

The team re-used the 60-foot motorized track and mounted multiple 6-foot trays where light fixtures were mounted that can mechanically run up and down the track to side-light the reredos. Two Ketra LED strips were lodged onto the trays on each side, one to illuminate the further side while the other filled in the near-side of the reredos. The wirelessly controlled full color changing LED solution offered much tighter beam control giving them more flexibility with color and intensity. Similar Ketra PAR lamps were used for lighting the Reredos from the top. ETC projectors were used to slightly highlight the rectangular form of the central tablet with Q-Tran strips concealed within the tablet to reveal the interior carvings.

The final result is stunning, and the reredos mesmerizes like never before! The internal parts of the reredos are more visible, and the light reveals the sculptural beauty and the sophistication of the stone carvings and ornaments. When a visitor looks at the reredos as a whole, it is clearly calling attention to the grandeur and the architectural beauty that was almost hidden to the public before.

Another significant component of the restoration process was relighting the chandeliers that were 20 feet in the air. Although the chandeliers were not submitted for the IES Lumen Award, they were an ongoing part of the project as an essential decorative element. The pendants were retrofitted with dimmable LED lamps at both the visible light globes and the concealed uplights that provide a subtle light reflecting soft light on the ceiling above.

But the main source of lighting for the nave was the LED track fixtures at the clerestory. Edison Price 5-degree LED spotlights were used for sharp cross-aiming on each side of the Church illuminating the seating area and the aisles. For example, the fixtures in the south side of the church cross aimed to light the north side pews and vice versa. At the lower side aisles, small accents tucked behind columns were refurbished by Aurora Lampworks to take a Soraa LED lamp for concealed pathway lighting.

Sarah describes a scene of being harnessed in on ladders nearly 100 feet off of the floor in order to manually adjust and focus all of the lamps. This task was of great importance, as they designed general lighting in the nave without detracting from the beautiful stained glass or spilling too much light onto the adjacent architecture. The team remembers this process fondly, saying that experimenting with countless mockups took many months of testing and hands-on work but was the most fun part of the process.

Because the walls were so tall, no off the-shelf aiming tools were available. Therefore, Richard built many tools to help with aiming, including a laser model to measure the beam locations of track fixtures, and magnetic tools to find and retain angles of fixtures. The team used walkie-talkies to mimic the same angle in opposite sides of the church.

Sylvia explained that swaths of brown paper were temporarily added to the pews below to better see how the light was landing as they angled from 100 feet above. Another technique involved using light measuring technology on their phones for a better read on how light was hitting the floor, especially to ensure light on both sides of the church aisle was balanced. The mockups were an experimental process. The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys is widely recognized as the top Anglican choral ensemble in the United States. Front and backlight (reading light) were provided allowing the choir to read their hymns without glare and also lighting their faces for the audience. The blue-tinted glass window allowed the daylight to cast a beautiful colored light on the walls and the orchestra as well.

The team emphasized the importance of the close working relationship with the facilities manager, Angel Estrada. A fascinating piece of the story is that atop the new organ the sculpture of an angel was carved in the likeness of Angel Estrada to represent his significance to the Church. The lighting job is seamless and accomplished the plan within the cost. It is well-deserving of the received laurels. The finished product of the church is stunning and incredibly well-designed, a change which nearly-perfected the control of the beams spanning down from the high ceilings to the floor below, as well as giving increased quality of light and dimming capabilities. This long process of mockups and testing and many days spent painstakingly adjusting from 100-feet in the air paid off, as this stunning project received the recognition that it deserved with the Award of Excellence in the 2021 Lumen Awards.

This article was originally featured in the August issue of designing lighting (dl)