Dominating the corner of Manhattan’s 53rd Street and 5th Avenue for more than one hundred years, St. Thomas Church is an awe-inspiring sight. Its imposing High French Gothic styling, massive stained glass windows and more than sixty intricate reredos (decorative altar pieces) beckon to parishioners, passersby and tourists alike. When an electrical fire prompted a review and upgrade of the lighting and lighting control systems in this historic structure, St. Thomas Church knew exactly who to call. For nearly two decades, architectural lighting design firm Renfro Design Group (RDG) has partnered on projects with St. Thomas Church. RDG was recently invited back to relight the massive church, and veteran lighting designer Sarah Randall was tapped to lead the delicate project.
1. Highlight altarpiece details
2. Provide preset lighting scenes to complement the church’s wide variety of events, including a magical holiday service
3. Simplify maintenance and improve the energy efficiency of the lighting system
4. Improve light quality to create the mood of a sacred space for parishioners
5. Preserve and honor the space’s historical, spiritual, and introspective ambience
In an earlier renovation, RDG upgraded the light around the altarpiece from halogen flood lights on a boom to a track system with light fixtures on trays. Any future improvements needed to seamlessly integrate with this existing track system, and new light sources had to be concealed so as not to overwhelm design details. In addition, any work done could not affect the church’s renowned acoustics, which meant no puncturing the ceiling. And finally, the reflective, peaceful feel of the space needed to be protected, no easy task as the church sits on the corner of two bustling streets.
"We wanted to always retain that respectful, almost solemn feel of the space. It’s part of what cues you that this is a sacred place."-Sarah Randall, Senior Associate Project Manager, Renfro Design Group
Having worked with Ketra lighting on a previous project, Randall was impressed with the beam control and incredibly precise light output of the high-quality fixtures. The designer also knew that she wanted a family of solutions, and Ketra PARs and linears integrate seamlessly with Lutron controls for a single system that delivers a unified lighting environment.
To begin, the previously installed track system was repurposed: existing bulbs were replaced with Ketra G2 linears. RDG carefully engineered a way to cross beam angles to illuminate both near and far details of the altarpiece, emphasizing the texture of the stone carvings while simultaneously increasing total illumination in the space. In other areas throughout the church, historic replica fixtures were designed and installed to balance or add light. RDG was also able to use Ketra S38s to achieve something the church has wanted for a long time – to fill the pointed top of the altarpiece with beautiful light without interfering with the glorious daylight shining through the stained glass. Warm white light was chosen to honor the natural materials and the history of the church, and Ketra wireless control allows the color temperature and intensity to be calibrated in an easy and uniform way.
Given that the church is used for many different types of events, flexibility is also a very important feature. Depending on the occasion, the church’s AV team can either call upon the dozens of pre-programmed scenes to set the mood—or edit completely new scenes on the fly with the user-friendly app.
"The Church has a Christmas eve candlelit service where candlelight is spread from person to person in the congregation. We have a special program where the surrounding sanctuary lights also slowly dimming up as the candlelight is spread. The result is an immersive—almost magical— experience of the whole building growing in light together."- Sarah Randall, Senior Associate Project Manager, Renfro Design Group
Project photography by Magda Biernat.
At the project’s end, the RDG team had unified seventy-four decorative fixtures with over one hundred concealed luminaires. Concealed lighting at a dimmed intensity level preserves the architecture’s Gothic ambiance, while church staff love the lighting system’s ability to flexibly accommodate such a wide variety of musical performances and services. Under normal conditions, this historic church invites members – including their world-renowned men and boys choir – and the general public through its doors 24/7, offering a spiritual, uplifting respite to all who need it. The updated lighting and timeless architecture combine to give each moment - from weddings to weekly services to casual visits – the reverence it deserves.
St. Thomas Church, part of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, is located at the intersection of Fifth and Fifty-third in Manhattan. They have begun phased re-opening and do welcome visitors; for more details, visit their website. If you can’t make it to Manhattan, you are welcome to explore this heavenly space by taking a virtual tour.