ATHENS – Fundraising for The St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine at the World Trade Center has benefitted from contributions of several Greek-American community organizations in addition to the Archdiocese of America, including the Order of AHEPA, but the passion and generosity of individuals has been critical to the endeavor that will lead to what is arguably the most significant architectural monument of the more than 120-year-old Hellenic presence in America.
Lou Katsos, a distinguished member of New York’s design, construction, and development community, has volunteered his time as an advisor to the Friends of St. Nicholas and the project management team, but he also saw a need and opportunity to make a substantial personal financial contribution.
Katsos, like many American Hellenes, is delighted that the Shrine is being built of Pentelic marble, stone from the same quarry that was the source of the marble used to create the renowned Parthenon. At one point, however, he saw a need to intervene regarding an important symbolic matter.
The metal saw for cutting straight sections of marble (above) at the plant of the Venus Marble Group is impressive, but the machine that carves curved sections of stone with water at extremely high pressure is mind boggling and reflects the company’s commitment to excellence and working at the metaphorical ‘cutting edge.’
Early in the design process the Archdiocese was on the lookout for cost savings, so they changed the plan for the base that will support the grand Justinianic cross that will crown the dome. “Everyone agreed about changing the material from Pentelic marble to precast concrete – they said no one would see it anyway, but when I found that out, it really bothered me.”
He understood the cost considerations, and he did not want to disturb the construction process by starting an argument – “so I decided to donate the money to convert it back to Pentelic marble.”
Katsos is appreciative of the fact that the people fabricating the stone – the Venus Marble Group in Greece, led by its president and owner Vangelis Mazidzoglou – also understood what was at stake, and they lowered their price.
Katsos just gave a check to the Friends of St. Nicholas, because, when you are ‘building for the ages’ in a project like that, “you want to do it right,” Katsos said.
Architect Santiago Calatrava, who reveres Hellenic and Byzantine architecture, had in mind the Parthenon – which many do not realize was a Church for almost 1000 years – and most directly the Aghia Sophia in Constantinople. The shape of the exterior was also inspired by an image of the Theotokos in a mosaic icon in the Great Church.
The pieces of Pentelic marble that will form the base of the cross on the dome of St. Nicholas are about to be shipped to New York.
A TRULY GLOBAL PROCESS
In addition to the exterior form, which clearly evokes the Aghia Sophia – especially the 40 openings in the dome – the dominant element of St. Nicholas will be apparent at night: the warm mystical glow resulting from backlighting the translucent Pentelic marble.
“The glow,” Katsos said, “is the result of a unique process. This particular stone will be embedded in a double later of glass. One layer is reflective, but the outer layer – which is made in Spain – is non-reflective, so during the day it looks like stone.
Katsos explained that the Pentelic marble is cut at Venus Marble to a width of 6 mm and then sent to Germany where it is sliced even thinner – to 3 mm –and etched – through a patented secret process. It is then its shipped to Austria, where the glass elements and marble slices are fused together and slotted into ‘cassettes’ that are shipped to the Mg McGrath company in Minnesota. That is where the marble is prepared to be affixed to its metal supports, and the company comes to New York to install them on the church. In fact, it oversees the whole process from the quarry on Mt. Penteli to the World Trade Center site.
Katsos’ involvement in the project began when construction on St. Nicholas resumed after a nearly 3-year pause. “I was asked by John Catsimatidis and Father Alex Karloutsos to help by providing consulting services” – which he does on a pro-bono basis.
Attending gatherings of the Friends of St. Nicholas and the weekly project meetings, Katsos brings to the attention of key people what his remarkable building experience has taught him. “I tell them what they should watch out for as we go along. The past year’s meetings have taken place mostly by digital means.”
The interior of St. Nicholas will be adorned with decorative elements carved from pentelic marble.
For the upcoming 20th memorial for 9/11 Katsos told The National Herald that “the goal is to finish the exterior. The interior will be substantially done by the fall – the ‘Thiranixia’ Grand Opening in the presence of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will take place on November 2, 2021 – but it won’t be completely finished until the second quarter of 2022. “The altar area, which has a lot of decorative marble scroll work and other details will be done later. The iconograpjy is being done separately. A world-famous artist is creating them on Mount Athos and they will be brought to New York and attached after the church is finished.”
“I would say they will be in pretty good shape to celebrate Pascha 2022 there.”
Mazidzoglou, who lived in the United States for 15 years, feels honored to part of Diaspora history in this way. “It’s a very important project for America and Orthodoxy. I am happy to be involved and that that I was able to contribute my technical expertise to help realize something that first seemed impossible. I am proud to participate in something that will be a symbol of Hellenism and an expression of my love for the Orthodox Chruch.”