Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral
1121 N Leavitt St
Eager eyes carefully search the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral inside and out for any trace of architect Louis Sullivan’s distinctive touch of lavish nature-inspired ornament. Though other than in the canopy over the church’s entrance, his decorative work is hard to find and unusually restrained. It’s not what you’d expect from the architect. Holy Trinity is a delightful church: endearing in its size and playful in its shape. It’s no wonder why we love it. But why did Louis Sullivan love it?
Sullivan not only loved the building – he invested in it. He was so proud of his design that he returned half of his fee so that the church could afford completing his decorations. And he wrote of his hope that the church would become one of “the most unique and poetic buildings in the country.”
Plans for Holy Trinity began in the late 19th century as Chicago’s Russian Orthodox community was growing by leaps and bounds. They wanted a permanent church. This wish became a reality when Tsar Nicholas II provided the initial funds for building. The first designs commissioned by the church were by architect John Clifford. He designed a monumental church in keeping with the traditional Russian grand city cathedrals. However, the majority of this particular congregation did not come from the big cities. Most of Holy Trinity’s congregation came from small towns and farm country such as in Byelorussia, Ukraine and the Carpathian mountains. They found Clifford’s designs imposing. Understanding this (and being on a tight budget), Father Kochurov instead turned to Sullivan. Sullivan completed his design for the church in 1901, and the church itself was completed in 1903.
Though Holy Trinity is unlike any other church in Chicago, it would fit in well in Russia. Sullivan derived his design specifically from a small wooden church in Tatarskaya, Siberia (1897). Another major source of inspiration was likely the French critic Violet-le-duc’s popular book on the history of Russian architecture. Holy Trinity follows Le-Duc’s description of Russian church design as “elegance, not without boldness; the attentive study of the effect of the masses; a discreet ornamentation that is never powerful enough to destroy the principal lines and leaves repose for the eye.” A well balanced and bold but not overdone building, Holy Trinity is, in more ways than one, a traditional Russian Orthodox design.
Just as little Sullivan ornament is found on the building’s interior as its exterior. A couple of exceptions are the stylized effect of a scattering of old light bulbs, and a stunning colored glass chandelier central to the sanctuary (though unconfirmed, rumors say the chandelier was designed by Louis Millet). The inside of the church is intricately and thoroughly covered in ecclesiastical paintings by Russian artist V. N. Vasnetoff. The centerpiece of the sanctuary is the iconostas depicting scenes from the life of Christ. It was brought from Russia and donated to the church in 1912.
Though many of us look hopefully for signs of Sullivan’s signature decorative touches in the church, it is oddly enough the lack of his ornament that makes Holy Trinity a perfect example of his design philosophy. He famously believed that “form follows function” in architecture. The function of this building was to serve as a religious center of Chicago’s Russian Orthodox community. His modern and peculiar ornament was irrelevant to the needs of this traditional group. Sullivan understood what was being asked of him and designed first – a church that fulfilled the needs of its congregation, and second – an elegant and harmonious structure appreciated by anyone lucky enough to cross its path.
Did you know that the church was originally painted in various bright colors ranging from red to ultramarine blue?
The Holy Trinity Orthodox Church was designated as a cathedral in 1923. For church Visitor Information click here. There are numerous Sullivan exhibitions, lectures and even films going on in Chicago currently. Visit BLUEPRINT: Chicago’s Calendar of Architectural Events for more information.