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  • John M Feit

Onion Dome Mysteries Revealed

Regardless of how modest the structure, ecclesiastical architecture has a unique expressive ability. No better example of simple forms melded with powerful symbolism exists on Capitol Hill than St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral, on 13th Ave between Howell and Olive. The simplest of brick boxes, the church relies on exotic details and forms to announce its Orthodox beliefs, setting it apart from all other churches in the neighborhood.

The building’s most pronounced feature is its onion domes which are typical of the Russian Orthodox Church. While there appears to be no prescribed numbers of domes for the churches (Saint Basil’s in Moscow has ten) a minimum of five seems to be requisite, as is the adornment of the domes with the distinctive Orthodox cross and brightly rendered surface of the domes; in the case of St. Nicholas they are gold. Less pronounced than the domes is the green tent-roofed bell tower, which while not always associated with Orthodox design, remains a common feature.

Other important details of the church include the kokoshniks, the pointed, arched openings over the windows. The bochka roof which faces 13th Avenue is another Russian vernacular architectural element and closely resembles the kokoshniks.

These elements of distinction rest on a simple, brick-clad building. Behind the church you will find a set of seven bells, whose rustic post and beam supports and brass castings contrast nicely with the building's smooth brick.

Neither my professional work nor academic training acquainted me with Russian/Eastern Orthodox architecture (thank you Wikipedia). While rare in the Unites States, Saint Nicholas adds a welcome cultural and architectural diversity to our neighborhood.

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