A Construction Project Manager’s Perspective

Someone traveling through the modern city of Patra in northwestern Peloponnese will inevitably pay a visit to the magnificent Church of Saint Andrew, one of the greatest Churches in the Balkans. This house of worship is lavishly adorned with superb icons of Saints, marvelous mosaics, and an extraordinary tiled floor under colossal chandeliers.

Saint Andrew, one of the twelve Apostles and the brother of Saint Peter, is the City of Patra’s patron Saint. Legend, as well as historical references, have it that he was crucified in that city on an “X” shaped cross, though a number of references dispute this shape. Nevertheless, it is a fact that he martyred in Patra during the era of the Roman occupation, though there are contradictory views to that version. However, the accepted view is that the Apostle Andrew, who used an adjacent ancient well to baptize converts to Christianity, was indeed crucified in Patra on an X-shaped cross.

Constructing however this spectacular edifice was not an easy task. The timing of its construction, the economics involved, earthquakes, as well as engineering issues, egotistical disputes, inter-religious rivalries, two World Wars, two Greek-Turkish conflicts, and even a Civil War, took their toll on the completion of this Church. The following description is but a brief account of how it happened. (A separate article will describe its magnificent interior.)

Its location adjacent to the shoreline has been a religious site since ancient times. Ancient travelers have reported a temple of goddess Demeter at that site, along with a famous well, used for pagan rites and rituals. (That well is still there, preserved and enhanced for the contemporary faithful.) Unfortunately, there are no known remnants of that ancient temple – however, it is suspected that the splendid marble floor of the subsequent Christian church is the original temple’s flooring, on top of which the existing “Old Church” was built. (It is done in Basilica-style, the most recent version (1843) of a series of structures replacing the original, destroyed and rebuilt repeatedly over a period of centuries.)

During the late 19th Century (1878 seems to be the official reference) the citizens of Patra decided that they needed a Christian structure appropriate in splendor for the housing of the relics of the martyred Saint. The existing church building – the “Old Church” – was not deemed of sufficient grandeur. So it was thought at the time, that the prestige (the “ego”) of the community demanded that a superior structure be built.

There is a typical time-lag between an official “desire” and effective action. To start with, there are the usual real estate issues: the land in the area was subject to legal disputes between government entities and private landowners, that had been previously settled. With those hurdles overcome, a formal contest was held around the turn of the Century, in which noted international architects were invited to submit designs for the proposed house of worship, with monetary awards given to the three “best” designs. In 1904, there were 32 submittals, of which, a committee presided by the then Metropolitan of Patra selected 8 for further review. Two of them were from Greeks (N.K. Dimadi and P. Karathanasopoulos,) one Austrian, one German, one Italian, one Englishman, and two Frenchmen (of which Emile Robert was the final winner.) Interestingly, the final selection was not done in Greece by Greeks but was delegated to the German School of Fine Arts in Berlin.

(For the 2004 modern Olympics, the Architect for the Athens buildings was not Greek, either.)

After a public competitive bid, a builder was selected, and the work launched. The official groundbreaking took place on June 1, 1908. It was a festive date for Patra, with flags everywhere (even a few electric light-bulbs in squares) and the popular King George I (whose real name was William) in the terminology of the day “…condescended to officiate, placing the cornerstone.” So they dug down to about 4 meters – were, of course, they encountered the expected water table (they knew that from the nearby ancient well.) The water level was kept down by continuous pumping, so that the King, in his spotless white uniform, would not get wet or muddy. By all accounts, the ceremony went well, auguring a propitious future.

(Then, the troubles began…)

Almost immediately, serious disputes were aired, about the “appropriateness” of Robert’s design. It was felt by a number of prominent Greek architects, archaeologists, and arbiters of culture that it was too “Western” (read: “Catholic”) in flavor, and thus needed significant modification, to make it more “Orthodox” in nature. Their main objections were essential of style, focused on the somewhat “pointy” dome and the size and shape of the windows. On the sidelines, some of the faithful started grumbling that the Saint did not want to be moved to a new Church. All this tumult and controversy put a stop to the progress – which was convenient in a sense, since funding for the construction had not materialized – so the bureaucracy put a stop to the proceedings, pending the outcome and, three years later, in 1912 the Balkan Wars erupted involving Greece, the King was assassinated in 1913, followed in 1914 by the monumental conflict of World War I, and then by the Greek adventure in Turkey, which resulted in the “catastrophe” of 1922, as East Thrace, Constantinople, and the West Coast of Asia Minor, including Smyrna were gained and lost. The project of course languished.

(The people at that time had far bigger issues – and expenses – to worry about.)

It wasn’t until 1929 when the issue was taken up again. Because funding continued to be a problem, a local tax mainly on exporting currants (Patra was the center of such exports) had been instituted for that purpose. (Just in time for the worldwide depression and the reduction of trade.) Also, up for consideration was the fact that a destructive earthquake in 1928 in Corinth had awakened the engineers to the concept that a then-new technique – reinforced concrete – should be used in the construction. So, in 1933 a new structural design was commissioned, that took note of “anti-seismic” features. (Engineers are always learning, with each earthquake.)

A few years later, in 1937, when construction was about ready to begin again, the old (1909) objections on “style” were resurrected, and once again halted the progress. All sorts of committees were formed, but eventually, the work was commissioned – despite resignations under protest by committee members – pretty much as the original design by Robert, “with minor adjustments toward more Byzantinism.” So, the removal of previous, non-earthquake resistant work was performed, and the work, at last, began in earnest on the main reinforced concrete “shell” that would bear the future dome.

(This was just in time for… World War II and the occupation of Greece.)

The four-pillared concrete “shell,” without a dome, stood bare for nearly a decade until WWII was over, and the end of the on-going Greek Civil War was in sight. New studies were commissioned again, but there was also the added problem that those special “local taxes,” one of which had funded the project since 1928, had been abolished. What money may have been collected had also vanished under the dizzying inflation of the war. So, a new local tax was passed, to collect funds for the Church, paid as an added line-item on the electric bill.

(Separation of Church and State was not part of the Greek constitution. The State could tax to build churches.)

With the war(s) over, a new start was in order. But with only a concrete shell in place, the opportunity for a new contest for the design of the Church was evident. Not surprisingly, a new generation of talented people wanted a “shot” at the fame of being the architect. So, in 1948, the new contest was announced to complete the design of the much-delayed structure.

The winner was a prominent Greek architect (George Nomikos) in 1948. His design, whose dome matched that of Agia Sophia in Istanbul, was radically different from Robert’s, which was closer to St. Peter’s in Rome, and this sparked a two-year controversy and further delay. Despite its official approval, the Nomikos’ design – and the order by the government to dismantle all that was previously built and start from scratch – was soundly castigated by the general public sentiment and individual outcries, and the powers-to-be reversed themselves, and the original Robert design was reinstated. Interestingly, the ranking bureaucrat then in charge of the project was actually against the Robert design and had submitted his own idea, but it was rejected, and he was directed to do the job as he was told.

(Even the big boss has a boss.)

Eventually, in 1953, work began again – but halted due to its running over budget. A new local tax, again paid via the electric bill, was introduced in 1955. (One alternative proposal was to fund it via the local household garbage bill, but it was felt inappropriate to honor the Patron Saint with “garbage money.”) This tax officially ended in 2005, about 68 years after it was imposed for apparently the third time; however, for some reason, households continued to see it (and pay it) in their electric bills until 2010!

(In Greece, the electric company has become a convenient – though reluctant – tax collector.)

And so, it finally happened: the structure was eventually completed, and the formal dedication ceremony was held in 1974, or 66 years after the first spade was turned over in 1908. It is an impressive, imposing structure, a mixture of architectural styles but with a rounder, “Byzantine” dome, with a floor space of 7000 person capacity and an upper gallery of 1500 persons. Its copper-sheathed dome rises to 40.5 meters above the ground, and the cross another 5 meters higher. There are 12 smaller domes, one for each of the twelve Apostles.

The decorations, fitting out, and religious artistic depictions (“Agiographia”) began in 1985. This “new” Church, which despite so many difficulties, vicissitudes, delays, and antagonisms is a credit to the legacy of its architect, Emile Robert, and the faith, dedication, and perseverance of the citizens and clergy of Patra.