From Ashes to Resurrection

Volume 50, Issue 2 :: Adam Zimmerman

Exterior and interior prior to 2014 fire.

Exterior and interior of the 1995 church that was lost to fire 2014. Photos: George Yakubiw and Greg Chermak

The morning of April 5, 2014 was like most Saturdays during the Lenten season at St. Elias Ukrainian Catholic Church in Brampton, Ontario. There was a service planned for that morning, and likely spring cleaning and preparations for the Easter services two weeks later. Instead, the pastor, Father Roman Galadza, and his wife—who also happen to be parents to my wife, Sofia—were woken up to a call from the security company regarding a fire alarm. It was 6:00 in the morning when smoke was detected and some 15 fire trucks were on their way. By 10 that morning, the building was gone.

Those well beyond the immediate community shared in the shock and sadness caused by the fire, which was determined to be accidental. Built in 1995 and designed by the late Robert Greenberg, the timber-frame Byzantine church was known to people around the globe (as became especially apparent as notes of condolences started pouring in). Modeled after the 17th-century Boyko style of what is now Western Ukraine, its five onion-shaped domes could be seen from miles away. Inside, the walls were covered in iconography that took 20 years to complete. In the weeks that followed, the community mourned as they held Easter services in a tent next to the ruins, and turned their efforts to rebuilding.

My wife’s connection to St. Elias goes back to childhood; her father is the founding pastor of the parish, which was established in 1979. In 2009 our firm volunteered to design the parish house, completed in 2011. In the two years that followed we also designed a carriage house in a style similar to the church, as well as a pavilion for concerts and outdoor services. The day of the fire, we made certain they knew our pro-bono services were available. We worked with the building committee to establish a project team, which included a local architect of record, a structural engineering firm, and an MEP/FP engineering firm. All were carefully selected specialists with relevant expertise and sensitivity to construct such a unique and important building.

From the outset, the objective was to rebuild the church in the same spirit and style. It remained the same size—approximately 11,000 square feet, and 100 feet high to the top of the cross on the main dome—at the same location, oriented east, with the main entrance on the west elevation. As before, there are no pews. We worked from the original plan, which adheres to the Byzantine tradition that architecture should follow liturgical function. In fact, Greenberg spent extensive time designing the building from the inside out. He worked closely with the parish’s Protodeacon David Kennedy to learn about the various services and how they are conducted, so that in turn, he could provide a plan that allows for services to be celebrated in the most dignified manner possible. A Byzantine liturgical church needs a narthex, a naos (nave), and a bema (altar area).While we stayed true to the original church, there are differences. Some were required by code, others involved maintenance and sustainability. Innovation in wood building has come a long way over the past 20 years; we were able to revisit architectural details that could further support Byzantine liturgy.

Axonometric and plan of design

Axonometric and plan of the design to rebuild St. Elias, showing complex timber framing.

When the original building was constructed, the budget was tight. It also became quickly apparent that it’s not so easy to scale up a true wooden building such as this (Boyko churches are much smaller). Structural spans in timber became challenging and expensive, so there were necessary compromises and time did not permit more thorough vetting. Most notably, the original 30-foot-diameter central dome was supported by mega columns directly below and within the nave. In Greenberg’s plan, the columns were intended to buttress to the perimeter, making for a nave free of obstacles and better sightlines. That proved complicated and costly, so the mega columns landed directly below the footprint of the dome above. In our design, a series of trusses spanning 42 feet run along each side of the nave. The trusses are supported by four “mega” columns located in the outside corners below (each one about 20 feet wide); together with the diagonal struts, they are designed to resist the enormous lateral forces that result from wind on the largest dome. These columns spread farther apart (approximately 10 additional feet in both directions) than the columns of the original building. The new positioning is in line with Greenberg’s original intent and reflective of what one would see in traditional Boyko churches.

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When St. Elias burned to the ground, I had a certain degree of hesitation to participate. We were humbled to participate yet anxious to “get it right.” On October 1, 2016, we joined hundreds of parishioners and visitors for the consecration of the new church. There were tears of joy, but also a bittersweetness. Over time, iconography will color the walls again, artifacts will be replaced, and this church will embody cherished memories and moments. To design a sacred space that will mean so many things to so many people—a place of worship, a home-away-from-home, a place that will be enjoyed for generations—is rare.

PROJECT CREDITS

Zimmerman Workshop Architecture + Design (Design Architect); DKStudio Inc. (Architect of Record); Moses Structural Engineers Inc. (Structural Engineer); Sustainable Edge Ltd. (MWP Engineer); Santoro Construction Inc. (General Contractor); Timber Systems Limited (Timber Fabricator and Erector).

The author is the co-founder of Zimmerman Workshop Architecture + Design in Brooklyn, New York. He can be reached at: [email protected]