The Doors' Glory

A team of experts has worked for several months to restore and preserve the wooden doors of iconic Smyth Hall

by Sofia Tokar

Like many visitors to Nazareth College, Joseph Conte noticed the beautiful campus. But as a carpenter and woodworker, he especially noted Smyth Hall’s doors. “I thought to myself, ‘It would be an honor to work on this project,’” says Conte.

The project, which began five years ago, is an extensive restoration of the exterior wooden doorways on various buildings, particularly the ones that comprised the original East Avenue campus: Smyth Hall, the Motherhouse (now the Golisano Academic Center), and Medaille Hall (originally St. John Fisher Hall).

For the past several months, the focus has been on restoring and preserving the main doors of Smyth Hall. The difference between the two tasks is subtle, but important, according to Kirk Nielsen, a painter in Nazareth’s facilities department.

“Preservation attempts to keep something in an aesthetic or functional state longer than the natural environment will allow. Think about a fresh strawberry versus strawberry preserves. Restoration involves bringing something back as close to its original state as possible,” he explains.

Although Nazareth was founded in 1924, the current campus in Pittsford wasn’t established until 1942. That year, Smyth Hall—designed by architect Frank M. Quinlan Sr. and named in honor of Mother Rose Miriam Smyth, S.S.J., the second president of Nazareth and one of its five founders—officially opened its doors.

Now, combating 70-plus years of exposure and weathering on those doors requires a team of specialists, including carpenters, locksmiths, electricians, painters, and others.

A typical restoration project begins with the facilities team removing the doors, which require a full check-up. Enter Conte. He and his team at Conte Woodworking take the doors back to their shop in Prattsburgh, New York, for evaluation.

“Each door presents a unique challenge,” Conte explains, “and we study the door for hours. Then during disassembly, we discover how the original craftsmen put it together, and learn what we need to do to ensure the finished product has the same strengths and characteristics as the original. In this case, that included cleaning and restoring all of the original handmade carvings on the doors.”

Smyth Hall includes single- and double-doors. Each is made with an exterior of white oak and an interior core of American chestnut. “Chestnut wood is impervious to the elements and insects, so it stands up against weathering,” Conte says. “But it’s curious to see that some doors on campus (such as the Smyth doors) are laminated, while others elsewhere are solid or laminated. The two woodworking processes are very different.”

While Conte works off-site, the facilities team works on campus. After removing the doors, the carpenters build a temporary enclosure around the doorway and the locksmith removes the door hardware.

Restoring the weathered wood back to a presentable surface is a slow, methodical process. According to Nielsen, “Some of the details in the wood can be challenging, so I use fine instruments such as dental picks to remove all of the old finish. Then I begin hand sanding. Once the doorframe is stripped and sanded, I apply the new finish by staining the wood and then adding three coats of marine spar varnish.”

The carpenters then remove and replace the old door closures, which are sunk into the stone threshold. The masking is removed and the entire area cleaned before the refinished doors—back from Conte’s shop—are reattached and the hardware remounted.

“After we restore a set of doors, it’s my responsibility to preserve them. To do that, I refurbish them with fresh applications of stain and varnish every two to three years,” says Nielsen.

The entire process is a team effort aimed at securing a visible part of Nazareth’s heritage. And that effort is ongoing. In addition to maintaining the completed doors, there remain a number of doors on campus left to restore.

But as Nielsen explains, “The feedback we get from the Nazareth community lets us know that our efforts are greatly appreciated.”

Sofia Tokar is a freelance writer in Rochester, New York.