Located on 15 West 25th Street in Manhattan, the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava was severely damaged by a fire on May 3rd this year. The church is now working with the city and engineers to develop a plan of action for the building.
Formerly known as the Trinity Chapel Complex, the English Gothic Revival church was completed in 1855 and designed by British-born American architect Richard Upjohn. In 1942 it was purchased by the Serbian Eastern Orthodox parish. In 1968 the church’s stone facade and roof (all of which was lost in the fire) were designated a city landmark. 14 years later, the whole complex—which includes the Cathedral’s Parish House and the Clergy House—was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This month, the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) ordered that the South Gable wall on 25th Street be reinforced with metal beams for public safety reasons. Working with engineers and the Landmarks Preservation Committee, the DOB also stipulated “shoring and bracing” and that the wall tops be covered with a waterproof canvas to protect them from the elements.
The church as seen in 2011 (Courtesy Beyond My Ken)
Rumors of arson spread once news broke that three other churches had been subject to fires that Easter. “Too many churches have burned to call it an accident,” said former Serbian ambassador Dusan T. Batakovic. “It is very strange that it happened, that the fires all took place on Easter, the greatest Christian Orthodox holiday. Some kind of terrorist action can not be excluded.” However, officials said that candles were the most likely cause of the blaze. AN also spoke to FDNY Deputy Chief Michael Gala who recalled the incident. “Upon arrival, fire was already billowing out of the rose window. Due to the amount of combustible material in churches, fires can spread very rapidly,” he said. “I think this fire could have resulted from an improperly discarded candle.”
There were also fears that structural damage would result in the building being torn down. However, Alexander Schnell of the DOB said in June: “We don’t see that it’s impossible to stabilize the structure and preserve what remains while ensuring that public safety is not compromised. The situation—as we see it right now—does not pose a hazard to the public.” The church (albeit, its shell) is still standing. As Ann Friedman, director of sacred sites at the New York Landmarks Conservancy points out, churches have a habit of staying put. 235 out of the 255 landmarked religious buildings in the city are currently still used by religious organizations.
As for St. Sava, the church is going through motions of fundraising to ensure its preservation.
Just yesterday, AN spoke to a number of attendees at a fundraising event. Gordon Bijelonic, a Los Angeles-based film producer who grew up in the community, mentioned how the church played a role for refugees arriving in the U.S. “This Church created safe passage for my parents to the U.S.A. from an Austrian refugee camp during the communist era of former Yugoslavia.” He added how it was imperative that the building maintains its landmark status. “This is not so much about religion either, it has become a cultural icon. The church is a pillar of culture for Serbians who come to the U.S.,” he said. “We want to rebuild, not move. It’s so important that it remains where it is.”
Newly appointed to the parish, Very Reverend Dr. Živojin Jakovljević spoke of how much the church welcomed the support they received after the fire. “At the time when our Parish and we, the people of Saint Sava, grieve the loss of a beautiful church, we also feel comforted, because we know we are not alone. We would like to thank all those, who, by their support and solidarity, have given us comfort and hope. Such attitude will not only help us rebuild the church, but also uplift the spirit of many lovely faithful people of our Saint Sava community.”