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An unorthodox design: Massive church construction project in Carmel features unique architecture

September 8, 2008

The golden dome that sits atop Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church under construction in Carmel provides a curious sight for those in central Indiana.

But what is even more unusual about the massive structure underneath the dome is a Sixth Century Byzantine design like no other in the world.

"There's no design like this in history, and it's never been built before," said San Francisco architect Christ [pronounced Chris] Kamages, designer of the church. His CJK Design Group specializes in the design of Byzantine-Orthodox structures. The one for Holy Trinity, however, is so unusual Kamages is in the process of having it patented.

It's modeled after the Great Church of Hagia Sophia, finished in 537 in what at the time was Constantinople. The version at the corner of 106th Street and Shelborne Road, which should be finished sometime in December, contains similar ancient essentials: dome, arches and vaults. The difference is the "triad" configuration Kamages incorporated.

Using a three-leaf clover as an example, the alter sits atop with two wings for additional seating space looking forward. A traditional orthodox church, such as the Hagia Sophia, would have been built in the shape of a four-leaf clover, with the two wings facing each other instead of forward.

The modern, triangulated design improves sight lines, eliminates blind spots, and allows parishioners to be more involved in services, in addition to providing more space. The sanctuary can seat more than 600 people without anyone being farther than 70 feet from the altar. It is flanked to the right by a choir area and to the left by a baptistery that accommodates full immersion.

The 25,375-square-foot edifice dwarfs its 11,399-square-foot predecessor in both size and stature. The interior remains a maze of scaffolding that extends high into the air, but the masonry work and brick exterior give passersby a glimpse of the church's splendor.

"We're trying to make this a facility that is more than for the Greeks, but [also] for the neighbors," said Bob Dine, a member of the church building committee.

By tradition, the building must face east toward Jerusalem and the rising of the sun. Outside the sanctuary, a library, an administrative area and education wing for Sunday School classes also are part of the project. A detached, 8,000-square-foot banquet hall is in future plans.

The church's geometric intricacies, largely due to the triad design, presented one of the greatest challenges for contractor Shiel Sexton Co. Inc. Project Manager Shawn Hitchcock compared parts of construction to putting together a Rubik's Cube.

And, of course, there's the dome and the 20 windows encircling it. At 52 feet in diameter and weighing 50 tons, it is one of the largest Orthodox domes in the Western Hemisphere. Too massive to build atop the church, it was constructed on the ground and hoisted in the air by three cranes.

The steel skeleton is augmented by light gauge metal framing. The custom metal roof is supported by a wood roof decking. During construction, the dome sat on what is called a tension ring, which controlled the tension of the bowl to maintain its cir- cumference. Indiana Steel Fabricating Inc. of Indianapolis and Indy Steel Erectors of Camby fabricated the dome's structural steel.

On the inside, the dome's shape is accentuated by plaster that gives it an oldworld feel. The challenge with that task was finding a company that actually still does plaster work, church officials said. Locally based Circle B Construction Systems LLC was the contractor on that job.

The significance of the dome is not lost on Rev. Anastasios Gounaris, who has presided over Holy Trinity since 1991.

"The dome is to Orthodox churches what steeples are to Protestant and Catholic churches," he said.

Yet, the congregation has been without the symbol for at least a half century. It moved from West Street downtown to its current location in the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood in 1960, Gounaris said, at a time when the assimilation movement trumped tradition.

Membership has grown to 540 households, many of which have migrated north, prompting church leaders to search for a more convenient location. This is the only Greek Orthodox church in central Indiana.

Skyrocketing land prices surrounding the current property made it impossible to expand. And even if the church could have afforded to enlarge its borders, the historic homes in the neighborhood are not the type ripe for razing, Gounaris said. In addition, second-floor classrooms in the twostory, 12,219-square-foot building next to the church make it difficult for disabled children to gain access.

Leaders purchased the 20-acre tract in Carmel for $475,000 in 1998 and embarked on a capital campaign in 2005 to fund the $9 million project. Members have raised $7 million so far. The sale of the existing church for $1.5 million leaves the congregation with a small mortgage.

Angie's List CEO Bill Oesterle bought the three-acre site and is renting it to the Indianapolis Opera to use as a multi-function center offering rehearsal space, classes and small performances. The not-for-profit is subleasing the building to the church until Jan. 31, in case the congregation has not moved in by the end of the year.

"We're a small church, so we're very excited about what we've been able to accomplish," said Dennis Dickos, president of the church council and a member since 1968.
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