The Complexity of History

The more you study history, the more you realize that we simply don’t know much about the past. I mean that literally: to fully describe the room I’m sitting in as I type this blog post would take millions of words, most of which would be wasted. Does anyone care what order the books are arranged in on the shelf to my right? As any number of historians have discussed, writing history is the process of selecting which facts are important and recording them; this process is inevitably subject to bias because “important” means different things to different people. To bring this discussion to a more specific topic, few old buildings have simple histories, and the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Sava is no exception.

Three years ago I said: The church was designed by Richard Upjohn and constructed in the 1850s as an uptown chapel for Trinity Church. The conversion to Serbian Orthodox use kept the beauty of the delicate interiors and the brownstone exterior intact. The church was on the National Register of Historic Places as well as being designated as a New York City landmark. All of that is true, but those are simply the facts I selected to make a specific point. There are a number of other facts that are worth discussing…

The church, as designed, had exposed roof trusses rather than an attic. The vast majority of nineteenth-century church in New York have masonry bearing walls, heavy-timber trusses as the primary roof framing, and ordinary timber framing for the remainder of the roof and for balconies and such. Nearly all have a plaster ceiling in the sanctuary, hung from those trusses. Even the churches that look like they might have European-style stone vaulting, like Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, do not. (The tip-off at St. Pat’s is that there are no flying buttresses connecting the main buttresses to the pinnacles, because the truss-and-hung-ceiling combination does not create any outward thrust.)

The Cathedral of Saint Sava was designed with fake hammer-beam trusses. If there had been a ceiling, the trusses could have been more rational, but they would not have looked as delicate. The “hammer-beams” were fake because they were simply not embedded deeply enough in the masonry to work the way true hammer-beams work. This raises the question of how the roof actually did function, and the answer is “badly.” The roof has a steep slope, so it never collected much snow, but that same slope exposes it to more wind load. Perhaps the answer is as simple as the fact that by the time it was 50 years old it was surrounded by taller office buildings, so it has not been exposed to full wind for most of its existence.

The interior, prior to 1940, was in a rather austere gothic style that is culturally quite far from the appearance of orthodox churches. Between that year, when it was changed from a chapel of Trinity Church to the Serbian cathedral, and 1996, when I first saw it, the interior was covered with orthodox iconography. The result was the intersection, possibly unique, of those two styles in that vertically-oriented space.

All of the interior finishes were either destroyed by the fire or so badly damaged as to require removal. A question that often comes up in historic preservation applies here: upon what era should a restoration be based? The exterior of the building had hardly changed in more than 150 years, but the interior changed a great deal close to the mid-point of the building’s age.

I could keep going, but I think I’ve made the point. The one-paragraph description I wrote about the building three years ago missed a lot of interesting facts. The more I try to describe what it was prior to the fire, the more there is to talk about.

Yesterday, my old repairs. Tomorrow, temporary conditions.

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