2020 Greater Erie Award for Preservation Excellence
In 2019 one of the most recognizable Erie landmarks underwent restoration – the gold domes atop the Russian Orthodox Old Rite Church of the Nativity. Preservation Erie is honoring this project for Preservation Excellence. Although the current structure is less than fifty years old, the Russian Orthodox Old Rite parish has maintained a domed church building at 247 East Front St. in the City of Erie for over 100 years. The congregation’s continued dedication to the preservation of their built heritage through the restoration of their gilded domes and crosses is worthy of admiration.
The parish that worships in the iconic building has a long history on Erie’s waterfront. Russian immigrants were drawn to the Erie for its supply of work along the docks. Priest-less Old Believers of Russian heritage made up the founders of the Church of the Nativity. More about the rich spiritual and cultural history of the parish can be found on the church’s website: http://www.churchofthenativity.net/our-parish/history
The Old Believers built a church in 1919 on the site of the current church, near the place where they lived and worked. Much like the current building, that structure had two domes with crosses. After suffering a fire in July 1986, the church was rebuilt on the old foundations. The parish made the conscious decision to make the new structure both beautiful and functional. Today, with gilded domes and crosses, the Church of the Nativity is a shining fixture in the skyline of the City of Erie.
There are two domes on the church, a small dome above the narthex and a larger dome above the central nave. Each dome has a characteristic bulbous onion shape that tapers to a point and is finished with a cross. The crosses are distinctly Russian Orthodox with three horizontal crossbeams, the lowest one being slanted. Created with wood formwork by Building Systems, Inc., they were cast in fiberglass by MFG Construction and Water Products. Gold leaf was applied to the domes for the first time in 1987 by the parishioners of the Church of the Nativity.
The domes have been gilded a total of three times since their creation. Each time, the domes and crosses are lifted from the structure and placed on the ground near the church building. At ground level, the larger dome stands a massive 23 feet tall and weighs over 7,000 pounds. Its cross weighs an additional 700 pounds. The smaller dome is about one-third of the size of the larger dome, but still weighs over 600 pounds with a 125-pound cross.
For the 100th anniversary of the parish, there was debate whether to paint the domes or to undertake the expense to gild for the third time. The decision was made to gild, principally because the domes have become such an iconic symbol of Erie and are a treasured asset to the community, including to fishermen and boaters. This time the domes and crosses were finished professionally by Unique Services and Applications, Inc. of Pittsburgh. The restoration cost over $80,000. All four pieces – two domes and two crosses – were lifted back onto the church in October 2019 by Rog’s Rigging of Erie, completing the third restoration. This truly excellent preservation project maintained not only the material integrity of the domes, but preserved a distinctive piece of the City’s cultural heritage.
Preservation Erie would like to thank the Church of the Nativity parishioners for their devotion not only to the preservation of their heritage, but the preservation of their iconic asset for the entire community, ensuring two gold domes will rise above Erie’s East Bayfront for many years to come.