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Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral

2010 October 28
by Caroline Nye Stevens
Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, Chicago

Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, CNS 2010

1121 N Leavitt St.

Eager eyes carefully search the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral inside and out for any trace of renowned architect Louis Sullivan’s distinctive touch of lavish, nature-inspired ornament. However, other than in the canopy over the church’s entrance, his signature decorative work is hard to find and unusually restrained. Holy Trinity is a delightful church: endearing in its size and playful in its shape. It is no wonder why so many people love it, as did the architect himself.

Sullivan not only loved the building – he invested in it. He was so proud of his scheme that he returned half of his fee so that the church could afford to complete the final details of his design. 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. The Ukrainian Village neighborhood needed 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, grand, Russian 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. The church was built according to Sullivan’s design in 1903.

Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, Chicago

One of Louis Sullivan’s Sketches of Holy Trinity

Sullivan derived his design for Holy trinity from a place as far from Chicago as one could get, where there is a small wooden church in the town of Tartarskaya, at the heart of the Siberian steppe. 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 many ways, a traditional Russian Orthodox design.

Just as little Sullivan ornament may be found on the building’s interior as on its exterior. The only exception is the stunning colored glass chandelier suspended from the middle of the sanctuary (though unconfirmed, some say the chandelier was designed by the prolific artisan, 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 (a screen decorated with church icons) depicting scenes from the life of Christ. It was brought from Russia and donated to the church in 1912.

Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, Chicago

Holy Trinity Orthodox Church Sanctuary, CNS 2010

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 typical ornament was irrelevant to the needs of this traditional community. Sullivan understood what was being asked of him and designed first and foremost, a church that fulfilled the needs of its congregation, and second, an elegant and harmonious structure appreciated by anyone lucky enough to stumble across it in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village.


Fun Fact: Did you know that the church was at one point 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.

4 Responses
  1. October 28, 2010

    Is ultra-marine blue a real color? I just thought it was a nerd reference.

  2. Lori McCarthy permalink
    October 30, 2010

    Who knew? I had no idea that Sullivan designed a Russian Orthodox church which didn’t use his signature design styles. It’s beautiful

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