Editor’s note: During 2015 and 2016, Holy Virgin Cathedral in San Francisco embarked on a restoration and beautification project. Andrew Gould was hired to develop a new color scheme for the exterior, which had always been painted plain white. Situated in downtown San Francisco, the cathedral is probably the most highly visible Orthodox Church in the USA.
The following is an interview with the dean, Protopriest Peter Perekrestov.
A. Gould: Hello Father Peter. I would like to thank you for the opportunity to work on this project. Though it was a small job for me – just selecting colors and presenting renderings – it was a special honor. I cannot think of any other project to which I have contributed that is so widely seen by so many.
Making changes to an old building is often controversial. Was there a consensus that the paint colors and other exterior details needed improvement, or was this an uphill battle? Do many people at HVC recognize that the exterior of their church is rather cold and plain compared to the splendid interior, and do they see this as something worth improving upon?
Prot. Peter: The sooner the repairs would be done, the better, since putting them off would risk more deterioration and damage. A rather small group of people at HVC recognized the need for major changes in the cathedral’s exterior. Our community is open to these and trusts the parish leadership. In regards to the new color scheme for the exterior of HVC, it was somewhat of a risk. The fact that it was proposed by a highly-regarded Orthodox architect helped. And there was a consensus among the parish rector, Archbishop Kyrill, the cathedral dean (myself), the parish warden, Nick Buick, and the cathedral choir director (and iconographer) Vladimir Krassovsky, that the new color scheme would work well and that we should move forward and make this rather bold change.
A. Gould: When you presented my ideas for the red and white color scheme, what were some initial reactions you heard?
Prot. Peter: One member of the parish council said the cathedral will look like a jail, with the red stripes! The reactions of parishioners and passersby when paint patches were applied were very diverse, ranging from “Are you serious?” to “How refreshing and interesting!” When it comes to choosing a color, it is almost impossible to reach a consensus – it is so subjective and every person becomes and expert… I suggested to a few people to go across the street and view the color patch from a distance, so as to have a better idea as to the final result.
A. Gould: And now that the painting is done, how does the cathedral community feel about it?
Prot. Peter: It is unbelievably positive. So many people, including our own parishioners, guest pilgrims, clergy, and just people from the neighborhood have noted how good and fresh the cathedral looks, how many of the previously unnoticed ornamental details are standing out and how the cathedral has a more visible and unique presence. The color scheme is also one that has a purely “Russian” element, the red is quite common in Russian churches. It has both an earthiness and joy about it.
A. Gould: What factors made the cathedral decide to embark on this renovation project? Was repainting initially a priority, or was it other necessary repairs?
Prot. Peter: Renovation, repair and beautification projects are ongoing at Holy Virgin Cathedral. As the 50th anniversary of the building approached (the first Liturgy was celebrated in the new Holy Virgin Cathedral by St. John, the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco, on March 14, 1966), it was decided to repair the cracks in the walls of the cathedral, the cupolas, and then paint the building and the crosses.
A. Gould: Tell us more about the problems with the cupolas. These cupolas, covered in gold mosaic tesseraerather than the usual sheet metal, are so unusual. Were you able to successfully repair them, and will they last well into the future? What was the cost of these repairs and how did you finance it?
Prot. Peter: The cupolas are concrete covered with gold mosaic tesserae. I am not sure why this was initially done at the construction stage. It was likely the most feasible option at the time, taking into account funding, the cathedral’s proximity to the ocean (with salt water) and being in a very foggy area of San Francisco. The crosses have been gilded and replaced a number of times – they were literally eaten away by the elements. Over the years some of the mosaic pieces on the cupolas fell off and small cracks appeared with rust spots. These cracks needed to be cleaned and filled, then new tesserae cemented on. The cost of the cupola and cross repairs was approximately $70,000 (the Parish Council decided on Tnemec Protective Coating, rather than gold leaf). The parish community is no longer large, due in part to the high cost of housing in San Francisco (the median house price at present is $1,600,000!), so we really needed the help of Orthodox faithful throughout the world to complete this stage of cathedral renovations. A number of large donors came through, and hundreds of people sent in smaller donations. About half the parishes of the diocese and a number of parishes of other jurisdictions responded to our plea to send in $1,000 each, and each family of our immediate parish community was asked for a one-time donation of $500. Thus about $250,000 was collected. The scaffolding cost alone for the painting and cupola and cross restoration was $22,000.
A. Gould: How is HVC perceived in San Francisco? Is there any antagonism towards Russian Orthodoxy having so prominent a presence in such a liberal city? It seems to me that the repainting must make some sort of a statement that the cathedral is not ashamed of its visibility in this political climate of hostility to Russia and Orthodoxy. Did these sorts of external perceptions play any part in your decisions to repaint?
Prot. Peter: No, these perceptions played no part in our decision to repaint. I have not noticed any antagonism towards either our cathedral or the Russian Orthodox community in general. Yes, San Francisco is quite liberal, but at the same time it is very diverse, and HVC’s presence only adds to this diversity. Also, with people here being rather open-minded, they do not blindly believe everything CNN reports, but prefer to do their own research and have their own viewpoint. For the last two years our cathedral has had its doors open from dawn to dusk, seven days a week (including Pascha and all major feasts) to all who wish to enter. It is remarkable that so many people visit it, not only Orthodox faithful from all over the world, but locals, tourists, passersby… The cathedral clergy is a regular sight in the Richmond district (in cassocks, of course) and the people of San Francisco, I have to admit, are generally open and rather well-disposed towards us. I am oftentimes surprised as to how many people say hello to me and will simply come up and ask a question.
A. Gould: What other improvements to the cathedral do you hope to pursue next?
Prot. Peter: One of my obediences here at HVC is beautification and improvement projects. Repairs are handled by the parish council, but “optional” upgrades and beautification projects are handled by myself with the Archbishop’s approval and blessing (I find sponsors for these independently, parish funds are not used whatsoever). We have just completed the altar, ambo and vestry area floor replacement project, a major one. The aged and damaged wooden parquet floor (with numerous burn marks) was removed and a light-colored ceramic tile floor (fireproof), with red granite trim, installed. Now the altar looks bigger, the ambo stands out, and the wood and gold iconostasis is actually enhanced by the new floor. Previously, the wood iconostasis on a wood floor was somewhat lost and its details less noticed.
Next on the project list are the replacement of ceiling-high windows in the main altar, new directed altar lighting, and working on the cathedral entrance – new stairs, planters and the area between the cathedral and sidewalk. There is a lot of drab concrete at present, and the entrance is not at all welcoming. I would like to “humanize” this area, add some warmth, plants and color – as much as possible given our urban setting and the narrow strip we have along Geary Boulevard. We may also need to replace the parish mosaic icon above the entrance, the present one is damaged, has bulges and may fall down (in one piece!) on someone passing by. Other ideas keep coming: as soon as we complete one project, another one comes up.
I would like to conclude with a remark that everything in the Church should be liturgically centered, and that includes all forms of church art: iconography; church singing; the decoration and beautification of sacred space – they are not simply a ‘bonus’ to worship, but an integral part of it. Everything should work together towards one goal. It is not by chance that the final prayer of the Divine Liturgy mentions: “Sanctify those that LOVE THE BEAUTY OF THY HOUSE!” I consider it an honor and blessing to be able to have the special obedience I have. And God willing, after my passing, all that has been done will remain for future generations of worshippers at Holy Virgin Cathedral.