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Inside the World Trade Center’s St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church

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Santiago Calatrava’s monument to Greek Orthodoxy comes into focus at the World Trade Center

The unassuming white townhouse at 155 Cedar Street that was once home to the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was destroyed on September 11, 2001, when the south tower fell. The loss of that building created a spiritual void in the new World Trade Center campus, which will soon be filled by the impressive new $50 million monument to the Greek Orthodox church that’s now rising.

Designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, St. Nicholas will formally be known as the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine at the World Trade Center.

But the building won’t only serve as a church. “It will have a much broader calling than a normal parish," says Andrew Veniopoulos, the project coordinator for St. Nicholas for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, who took Curbed on a recent tour of the construction site.

St. Nicholas with the original World Trade Center towers.
Courtesy of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesse

“First and foremost, it's a church and parish,” says Veniopoulos. “There will be liturgy every Sunday.” It will also serve as a place of interest for visitors and as a nondenominational bereavement center. Quiet rooms on the church’s second floor will provide the only space within the World Trade Center campus where visitors can go to privately mourn—still necessary 16 years after the attacks.

The design for the new St. Nicholas is inspired by the Byzantine churches Hagia Sophia and Church of the Holy Savior of Chora, both in Istanbul. Taking a page from Hagia Sophia, the Greek Orthodox equivalent of St. Peter’s Basilica, the dome of Calatrava’s St. Nicholas will have 40 ribs arching towards a crowning icon of Jesus. Here, ten foot skylights will be placed between the ribs, allowing light to stream in to the white marble nave.

There was no imperative for Calatrava’s design to connect to the larger World Trade Center campus, but it does. Similar to the World Trade Center Performing Arts Center rising near One World Trade Center, St. Nicholas’s facade will be made of 1,000 eighth-inch thick panels of Pentelic marble, sandwiched between two panes of glass. The materials will allow light to indirectly filter into the church during the day and warmly glow out of it at night.

A stand-in cross was placed on top of the building for its topping-out ceremony in November 2016. The permanent fixture is still being fabricated.

The delicate facade belies the fact that the building will be one of the most structurally sound in the city, using concrete with a compressive density of about 7,000 pounds per square inch. By comparison, a normal office building’s is about 4,000 pounds per square inch. At One World Trade Center, that number is 14,000.

The church sits on top of the entrance ramps to the vehicle security center at the World Trade Center, at the end of the acre-long Liberty Park and about 50 yards from where the church once stood. Veniopoulos points out that the park is like the church’s very own acropolis, or high fortified area, but this design characteristic has proven challenging in the piecing together of St. Nicholas. It took workers several tries to perfect the installation of the church’s mechanicals, which will hide in a three-foot-tall space between the top of the ramps and the floor of the nave. But the workers finally got it right; the church’s concrete floor has been poured, sealing the mechanicals in place.

The new church will measure about 4,500 square feet. The old church was just 1,400.
A stand-in icon of Jesus is staged in the nave.
The circular nave will seat about 130 parishioners.

Next up is the installation of the exterior Pentelic marble panels, which will be bound together with a light-transmitting epoxy that will allow the facade to glow without the interruption of shadows. In the coming months, the pristine white marble that will cover much of the building’s interior will be installed. Then the church’s new iconography will be put into place, with the help of Friar Lukas of Xenophontos Monastery of Mount Athos, who’s been hand-making it since last year.

When the building is complete, the nave will seat about 130 people with overflow room on the church’s third floor. On the second floor will be the bereavement center and donor recognition areas (the church’s offices will be offsite).

And its congregation, currently numbering about 130 families, is expected to swell to upwards of 1,000 when the new building opens. Although there’s still a year until then, Venipoulos says he’s already fielding calls from people eager to book the church for weddings and other important life events.

For all that’s new at St. Nicholas, its name will continue to remind of where the church came from. Just inland from where Manhattan’s docks for arriving immigrants once stood, St. Nicholas, named for the patron saint of seafarers, will continue to hold open its doors for those in need of respite.

St. Nicholas National Shrine

130 Liberty Street, New York, NY 10006