As this month got underway, we brought you the unfortunate news regarding the landmark Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava at 15 West 25th Street, designed by Richard Upjohn, the architect of the Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan. The 1855 building, which was the city’s only house of prayer servicing the Serbian Orthodox community, was reduced to a charred stone shell on the evening of May 1, just hours after the Orthodox Easter celebration. While the church is collecting donations for reconstruction, the authorities are investigating the fenced-off site for the cause of the conflagration, while engineers keep an eye on the ruined building’s stability. The building is a New York City landmark and is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Although the city’s laws protect the building from further demolition, the stone shell may be torn down if ultimately deemed dangerously unstable. Fortunately, the walls appear to be structurally sound for the time being, though serious reinforcement work would be permitted only after the investigations are complete.
The front of the mid-block site opens onto West 25th Street.
The rear stretches to West 26th.
The businesses along West 25th are open once again. Even the large parking lot immediately west of the church, which was used for staging by the emergency crews during and shortly after the fire (and a portion of which is still used for that purpose), is open for business once again, used for parking during the week and hosting the Chelsea Flea Market during weekends between 6:30 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.
The street itself is periodically closed to auto traffic whenever investigators and surveyors are working at the site.
On May 24, cathedral officials posted a press release regarding the status of the structure. Our following-day site visit revealed additional details. The FDNY is currently investigating the cause of the fire, which was deemed “suspicious” by fire officials the day after the blaze. Engineers from Staten Island-based Rogers Surveying PLLC are also at the site, monitoring the ruin for ground movement and other signs that may indicate danger.
Only the charred rafters above the apse (the semi-circular, rear portion facing West 26th Street) remain at the moment.
The church predates the city’s first true steel-frame buildings by a few decades, and its stone-and-concrete walls are supported by 28 load-bearing buttresses around the perimeter. Thankfully, the walls appear to be in reasonable shape, and are not in imminent danger of collapse. Of course, the situation may change at a moment’s notice, so the structure is continuously monitored by survey equipment while the firefighters are at the site. No heavy-duty reinforcement construction is permitted until the investigation is complete. The structure is shored up only with cables that snake in and out of arched Gothic windows.
The building’s most fragile point is the pinnacle above the rose window above the main entrance. Prior to the fire, circular tracery added rigidity to the stone façade, laterally strengthened by the wooden beams of the roof. Now, the tracery is gone along with the roof, leaving the 28th Street pinnacle supported only by the sloping walls on either side of the window, which sits well above the four buttresses that support the front façade.
However, just because the pinnacle is the weakest point, it does not mean that it is in danger of imminent collapse. It appears secure enough for workers and construction equipment to maneuver in and out of the front entrance directly beneath.
The only notable portion of the stone exterior that was destroyed is the tip of the western turret at West 25th Street, which was apparently knocked from its perch during fire-fighting efforts.
The charred interior tells a different story, where a unique fusion of Orthodox trappings housed within a Protestant Gothic space was completely obliterated.
The bust of Nikola Tesla, outside the main façade, as well as the rest of the busts and even the greenery in between, survived the blaze undamaged, protected by the heavy stone wall. Their current condition is unknown since they are concealed by the construction fence. The elaborate rectory building on the east side of the site at West 25th also survived essentially unscathed.
The city’s Serbian Orthodox community, which temporarily holds services at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church at 440 West 21st Street, is united in its intention to rebuild the landmark. On May 26, Patriarch Irinej, the spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Serbs, expressed his sympathies and a stance of solidarity with his compatriots across the ocean. In the meanwhile, the church is asking New Yorkers and the global community for help via a GoFundMe campaign.