Building of the Day: 228 North 12th Street

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Our Lord
Address: 228 North 12th Street
Cross Streets: Corner Driggs Avenue
Neighborhood: Williamsburg
Year Built: 1916-1921
Architectural Style: Russian Byzantine
Architect: Louis Allmendinger
Other Work by Architect: Gobel mansion, Highland Park; Mathews Model Flats, Ridgewood; Glenwood Theater, Ridgewood; various factories in Brooklyn and Queens.
Landmarked: Yes, individual landmark (1969), National Register of Historic Places (1980)

The story: When you pass this building, or see its distinctive onion domes from the BQE, you feel like you are standing in Russia. This church is one of the most evocative Russian Orthodox churches in the city. The architect of this space never did anything like it before, or afterwards. With one building of such majesty, Louis Allmendinger put himself on the map as the architect of one of Brooklyn’s most beautiful churches. And that’s saying something, here in the Borough of Churches.

By 1880, immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian kingdom of Galicia, now part of Poland, had settled in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint area, as well as in nearby Maspeth in Queens. Many of them wanted to have a place to worship, so like most fledgling churches and temples in Brooklyn, this Orthodox church started in the home of a parishioner, and grew in numbers there until enough money could be raised to buy the first church building. A vacant wooden Methodist church building on North 5th and Bedford was purchased, and renovated to the needs of a Russian Orthodox congregation. The dedication of this church, called St. Vladimir’s, took place in 1908.

By 1916, the congregation had outgrown this building, and a search for buildable land resulted in the purchase of five lots here on the corner of Driggs and North 12th Street. There is no record of how Louis Allmendinger got the job, whether by competition, recommendation or word of mouth, but he proceeded to design a distinctive church, as Russian Orthodox in every way as any back in Eastern Europe.

His design was based on the Cathedral of the Dormition within the Kremlin, in Moscow. It has five onion domes supported by columns, a classic feature of Byzantine architecture, and the basis of much of Russian architecture. The church plan is a Greek cross, but the addition of the four squared towers at each intersection of the cross makes the building almost a square. Each tower is capped by a copper-covered onion dome, which draws the eye to the central dome, an enormous onion dome that covers the main axis crossing of the Greek cross. It, too, is covered in copper, and is crowned with a large gilded Russian Orthodox cross.

One of Allmendinger’s largest projects had been the Mathews Model flats, a large group of row house flats in nearby Ridgewood in Queens. These now landmarked buildings were built of the same materials he used here in the cathedral, warm beige-yellow bricks that add lightness to this vast cathedral. Since this church’s congregation also came from Queens, perhaps this is the connection – perhaps some of them lived in the Mathews flats, and thus, the recommendation.

The completion of the cathedral was held up by World War I, causing the congregation to have to sell St. Vladimir’s before the building was finished. They ended up worshiping here long before that. Parts of the iconostas, the elaborate screened panels of icons and carved ornamentation that separates the altar from the rest of the sanctuary, was brought here, and used in a side altar dedicated to St. Vladimir. But at last, in 1922, the entire cathedral was completed and was consecrated with great pomp and ceremony in September of 1922.

The interior is adorned in the rich, gilded tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church. The new iconostas is a magnificent three-door screen which dominates the interior space. When the center door is opened, the altar can be seen by the congregation. Every surface is covered in icons, paintings, gilding and decoration, with beautiful stained glass windows, gilded light fixtures and expertly fashioned faux marble columns. It is a visual feast, almost too much to take in, a truly grand Russian Orthodox cathedral.

They almost lost the church during the Depression, but the congregation pulled through, and paid off its mortgage. By the late 1960s, a campaign was needed to raise money for necessary repairs as well as regilding of fixtures, new altar cloths and banners, and the like. In the late 1990s, more was needed for structural repairs to the roofs, windows and those beautiful domes. Thanks to grants, including one from the Parks Department, as well as private donations, the Cathedral was able to do the necessary repairs, and it remains one of the largest and most beautiful houses of worship in the entire city. GMAP

(Photo: Christopher Bride for PropertyShark)

Photo: Russian Orthodox Cathedral website. roct.org

Photo: Russian Orthodox Cathedral website. roct.org

Photo: Russian Orthodox Cathedral website. roct.org

During repairs to domes and roofs. Photo: Russian Orthodox Cathedral website. roct.org

Photo: Lil’latvian on Flickr

Photo: Ship of Fools.com

Photo: Wally G on Flickr

16 Comment

  • no hipsters – that is not a mosque

  • how is this “East” Williamsburg? It’s next to McCarren Park.

    • That’s what the LPC called the hood. What should it be. I fully admit I don’t know the boundaries in that neck of the woods. I’ll change it to plain old Williamsburg, unless it’s actually in Greenpoint. Please educate me.

      • I think this definitely qualifies as plain old Williamsburg. It’s west of Union and south of the park (and on a North numbered WBurg street). Historically, west (northwest) of Union was always Williamsburg with the north and south numbered streets, leftover from from Williamsburg was a separate town with its own (very confusing double numbered) street grid. East of Union (named streets not numbers), way back when, technically became East Williamsburg, but for a decade or more it has also just been Williamsburg as well. East Williamsburg Industrial Park is really more southeast out where those factories, oil tanks, etc lived by Morgan Ave between Flushing and Meeker. Grand ave shopping area east of the BQE, Williamsburg Houses, etc. are also in what some call East Williamsburg although depending on the realtor or the hipster it could be called Bushwick if it fits the need. Even that area does still have 11211 zip code, so the city considers it all plain old Williamsburg down to Broadway and Flushing. This church is far from any of that.

  • I thought that it was Latvian Orthodox…maybe it’s the Kevorka?

  • Dh, with crosses all over the place, did someone really think that was true?

    • haha yeah – i’ve heard it referred to that on more than one occasion. smartypants!

      fwiw – i’d call this plain ol williamsburg. east wb when you cross union (all the way out to broadway junction, if you’re asking corcoran)

  • Also, pretty sure they used the exterior of this church for the Seinfeld episode where George converts…

  • One of my favorite buildings in all of Brooklyn, and a shame that it now has to be surrounded by so many condos, forever obstructing the views of this marvelous building.

    By the way, I have no idea what makes that East Williamsburg. I thought it was Northside or just plain old regular Williamsburg.

  • I am looking at this church as I speak, and watching a new construction slowly go up right next door on N11th. I sure hope the new building isn’t ugly, the Church has been so nice to look at..

  • MM:
    I say it’s in Greenpoint.

    Thanks for the interior images.
    Wow!
    What a great old church!

    • According to the old neighborhood boundaries, anything north of N11/12th street is considered Greenpoint, however I think nowadays anything south of McCarren and West of Union is Williamsburg. I am sure people who live on N11th and N12th would love to be considered Greenpoint- it has some of the best public schools in the borough…

      • When I lived in East Williamsburg, on Lorimer and Ten Eyck I considered this Williamsburg. When I later moved to Greenpoint years later, I considered this Williamsburg. However, I had no idea of the official boundaries.

        I remember my wife and I sneaking in here when the incense was burning and the doors were open, just to be nosey. Loved the interior, which in real life felt darker than the shots here. I love this place. Just enough byzantineness to make me think I’m elsewhere.

  • Anything east of Union and south of what was Bushwick Creek, including Automotive High School and McCarren Park is Williamsburg[h]. And I too have heard the building referred to as “the mosque.”

    I did a little work on a state preservation grant for the church and anyone who needs a mnemonic for its full, formal name is welcome to mine, “Rocket Tool,” a bastardization of Rocottool.

  • OK, I concede the point, it’s Williamsburg. Too bad.

  • Some good geographers here! This is definitely Williamsburg (just plain Williamsburg). You could also call it Northside, but numbered streets, south/west of Union has been Williamsburg since the 1810s. Greenpointers would claim this as Greenpoint, but it’s not.

    Greenpoint is well known for its Polish immigrant population, but going back to the late 19th century, Williamsburg had a lot of northern European immigrants of its own. Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Russians and Ukranians were throughout the Northside and parts of the Southside.