by Tim Gilmore, 7/2/2021
You don’t have to be Orthodox. You don’t have to be Christian. Not even religious. No more than the Orthodox Christians who meet here at the new address for St. John the Divine, further toward the beach from its last two locations, need be devotees of art to greet the Archangel Michael or the Virgin Mary with awe and adoration.
To stand before winged icons in this tiny bone-white chapel is to envelop yourself in the magic of faith. So often throughout history, art converted the damned. When art divorced itself from religion, it took with it its power but served only art. Art became reason enough for art, its own magic.
This icon screen has moved with its Orthodox congregation from the former Ahavath Chesed synagogue downtown (a century ago) to the postmodern architectural masterpiece designed by Ted Pappas on Atlantic Boulevard (half a century ago) to its new address down Beach Boulevard, past Kernan, toward the beaches.
The icon screen, or iconostasis, a tall wall colorfully decorated with icons of saints, that separates the inner sanctum from the nave where worshipers stand, the most important interior architectural element of an Orthodox church, reflects the ancient as much as architect Ted Pappas’s design begets a postmodern appendix to the Mid-Century Modern.
Meanwhile, this screen may be carpenter and furniture maker George Doro’s last surviving gift to his adopted city. Δῶρος (dóros) means “gift,” and George Doro, second-generation Greek, born in Rhode Island, gave himself to Florida, this jungle boot off the mainland map.
Through its travels, across this city and this last century, the single floating eye centered atop the screen has never blinked. The unblinking eye was George Doro’s signature and symbol. Through that eye, the artist still sees.
Doro is best remembered now for the George Doro Fixture Company Building, built downtown in 1904, which the City and private interests decided, against community outrage, in the spring of 2021, to demolish.
In that real estate tradition of blind malice—“malice” defined legally as “intentional disregard”—yes, intentional though blind, that central criminal contradiction—in which new developments take the name, as though innocent / ignorant (Remember James Baldwin wrote, in The Fire Next Time, “It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”) of what they’ve displaced (Deerwood, Baymeadows, Brierwood, Oak Hill, Pine View), Augusta, Georgia based developer Capital Rise, LLC demolished the Doro Fixture Company Building to replace it with yet another five-over-one style apartment building and planned to call it, like an epitaph, The Doro.
Five-over-one buildings take their name from the recent legalization of increased flooring built entirely of wood above a concrete base, frequently resulting in five floors of cheap woodframe construction atop a single floor of concrete platform.
Yet St. John the Divine’s George Doro iconostasis left that blasphemy on the site of the Doro Fixture Co. Building behind. The most prominent example of Doro’s artistry surviving, the screen as old as the congregation, it’s moved with the church continually.
So beneath that signature eye, how many weddings? funerals? baptisms? salvations and losses eternal? How many beseechings? desperations? incidental curses? hypocritical blessings? How much Easter? How much human history?
In Ted Pappas’s 1968 design, which the church vacated at the end of 2020 for its beachward megachurch, St. John the Divine’s interior wore blue and white, blue light coming through the tint of tall windows on blue flooring against the icon screen’s marble white. The son of two Greek islanders, Pappas chose the colors of a Greek island church.
The new church themes itself red for the blood of Christ, but honors Doro’s iconostasis with its own chapel. Typically the icon screen stands in the main church structure, but the screen’s separate chapel allots it its own mystical space and artistry. It becomes fully present, with projected sentience, in its new isolation.
A plain white dome space, surely to be painted with frescos in the future, hovers above the screen like the inside of an eggshell unbroken, a void full of form, like an original minimalist accompaniment for the icons, like all the potential of the future world looking back before these sacred figures.
Mark Pappas reminded me late last year, when I visited the church his father designed with both architect and son, how theatre and art became their own secular cultural realms, having long been the exclusive province of religion. They took the power with which they’d solely served the church and developed it as their own.
“In the years of the early church and in medieval times,” Mark said, “people lived a bleak life, no color, full of death. Then you went to church and there was stained glass and gold and this mesmerizing experience. It was a heavenly experience in a bleak and brutal world.”
Now we stand before this iconostasis in our cheap, violent and disposable culture, and the screen both devours me and soars me over our capitalist reduction to interchangeable throwaways. Just as I once saw a man throw a gun in the river, just as I once saw a man drop a gorgeous bouquet from a bridge, so I beg the white cleansing bright of this chapel and Doro’s unblinking signature eye to receive me both immersive and surfactant. Let us thus dive into art to rise through our own ἔκστασις / ekstasis.