Architectural Tour

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A video tour courtesy of Adriana Koruni

Saint George Cathedral:  A Brief Architectural Tour
The Cathedral, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has undergone a comprehensive $1.1 million restoration project begun in 1998.  This includes a major restoration of the façade to its original polychromatic appearance characteristic of the High Victorian Gothic style initiated by the renowned architect John Ruskin between 1870 and 1880. In part, the renovation was accomplished through grants from the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the Steeples Project of Historic Boston, Inc as an incentive for major contributions from the congregation. In 2004, the complete restoration of the Clerestory windows and roofing took place.  The new courtyard features an inlaid diamond pattern that complements the Venetian façade and Florentine Tower as well as the unique diagonal arrangement of cast-iron fencing stantions and granite pillars.  The three planting areas of the frontal garden are characterized by seven-season shrubs that provide perennial florals and greenery throughout the year.  In 2007, the next phase focused on the illumination of the exterior façade, the belfry and the interior tower windows, made possible through a grant from Historic Boston, Inc and the generosity of parishioners.

Background Information
St. George Cathedral is an extraordinarily elegant late 19th century landmark, with a singular history rooted in the United States and Europe.  It is sited a short walk from the Dorchester Heights national monument, from which George Washington oversaw the evacuation of the British fleet from Boston Harbor during the Revolutionary War. Prominently sited at the crest of a hill known as Mt. Washington, the Cathedral is an imposing structure eminently visible from vantage points throughout its seaport environs on the South Boston peninsula. Across the way to the South from Pleasure Bay is the JFK Presidential Library and to the East is Castle Island, a Civil War stronghold and popular area for strollers by the sea.  Two flanking companion homes frame the church, providing a distinctive urban setting and house the parish library, offices and archive.  Together, the three structures are listed on the National Register as the “Cathedral of St. George Historic District.”

Photo courtesy of McGinley Kalsow, Architects

Built in 1872, the church was designed by noted Boston architect Samuel J.F. Thayer.  It was formerly known as the Second Hawes Congregational (Unitarian) Church, which was first founded in 1845 by a radical faction of the distinguished Hawes Place Society, South Boston’s second oldest religious group.  The origins of the society date back to the early 19th century, when John Hawes, one the Boston’s most prominent early citizens, donated a parcel of land for the founding of a church.  It is reputed that renowned Boston abolitionist Julia Ward Howe donated proceeds of her stirring composition, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” towards this church’s eventual construction in 1872. For many years, the Perkins School for the Blind was housed near the church, where Helen Keller studied.  In 1950, the edifice was acquired by the Albanian Orthodox Archdiocese in America and consecrated as St. George Cathedral.

St. George’s is the first Albanian Orthodox Church in the United States and was founded in Boston in 1908 by Archbishop Fan S. Noli, a prominent Albanian author, poet, scholar, and statesman.  With the creation of the Cathedral, Orthodox Albanians could at last worship in their own language, a practice that was forbidden in their homeland by Ottoman rule (1478–1912).  There being no permanent church building for the first 14 years, services were held in various rented lofts and halls throughout the city.  In 1922, a vacant church was obtained on Emerald Street in the South End, which served as the home of the Cathedral until its relocation to South Boston.

Hook and Hastngs Victorian Chandelier 1880
Organ Pipe Ensemble 1872

Architectural Elements of Note
The Ruskinian or High Victorian Gothic style characterizaed the period between 1870 and 1880. It was a major departure from the typically sedate neo-Classical and Federalist styles of church construction that preceded the Victorian period. At Saint George Cathedral one finds a heady mixture that draws upon Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance elements.  Simply put, the underlying message was articulatred in brick and mortar that there are many approaches to the Divine, and therefore the full panoply of the world’s architectural inheritance could be placed together to embody this concept.  Symmetry is eschewed in favor of a dynamic imbalance and the term “eclectic” appears to have been invented to describe this mode of Victoriana.

On visiting The Cathedral, in light of the above, be sure to take note of the following:
+ Twin entrance porches contrasted by a Florentine style tower belfry.
+ The Venetian Great Window; illuminating the Great Hall of the interior second level.
+ Entrance Foyer with twin parlors, one of which is now a 12th Century style Byzantine Chapel noted for its green onyx altar table and iconographic frescos
+ 13th Century style English lancet windows in the nave
+ The dramatic Hook and Hastings organ with “breathing pipes” decorated in gold leaf
+ A twin Clerestory of 40 newly restored polychromatic trefoil windows.
+ First use of cast iron pillars –a technical by product of the Civil War period - providing a light, airy interior space of the main sanctuary.
+ Gothic arches reflecting 19th Century Tall Ship craftsmanship.
+ Byzantine iconostasis (altar wall), hand-carved by Albanian craftsmen in the 17th century Balkan style.  
+ Belgian chandelier in the Athanas Auditorium, evoking the Tudor style of castles in the British Isles.
+ Oak sliding cabinet doors in the Foyer, among the largest in the U.S.
+ Tiffany era Brass chandeliers in the Vestibule and alcoves

Albanian Orthodox Iconostasis carving
carved by Master Dhimitri in 1912

English lancet Window

Stencil work in ceiling decoration

Detail of balcony window

Aisle end of a church pew

Photos courtesy of John Pema

Photo courtesy of Emily Liolin