Riga's most precious symbol in Jeopardy

  • 2004-07-28
  • By Elizabeth Celms
RIGA - The sound of the organ in Dome Cathedral, echoing from the gothic flying buttresses, rippling down the 13th century stained glass windows and soaring to fill the cathedral's majestic dome, is like no other.

For almost 30 years, the slender fingers of organist Aivars Kalejs have danced across the organ's ivory keys, swept away by the music they create. Yet the music that once encompassed the church has been replaced with silence.
The Dome Cathedral's towering wooden doors have been closed and locked since June 8. Aivars Kalejs' fingers have found another keyboard, in another church to play. Lutheran Archbishop Janis Vanags has moved his congregation to a small hall a block away. And tourists, coming from the world around to glimpse this magnificent structure, circle the cathedral in confusion, searching for an entrance that's no longer there.
"Of course I'm sorry that the cathedral is closed. The sound of the organ in Dome Cathedral has a unique quality and beautiful charm," Kalejs explains. "The church's organ is one of the greatest in the world and to play there is a special feeling – an honor."

Shaky foundations
In February, specialists from across Europe came to inspect the 793-year-old church's interior and foundation for deterioration. Upon discovering severe structural and fundamental damage, architect Bruno Deslandes, leader of the inspection team, declared the cathedral to be in critical condition and asked for its immediate closure. Not only was the church at risk of deterioration, but the structural damage was so great that it could possibly endanger the lives of the people within, claimed Deslandes.
After further assessment by the State Inspection for Heritage Protection, Deslandes convinced Latvian Culture Minister Helen Demakov that the cathedral's condition was critical. Demakov wrote an official order on June 8 notifying Klara Radzina, director of the Museum of Riga's History and Navigation that maintains and manages the church, of the cathedral's immediate closure.
"In August, the damaged material will be analyzed, and it will be decided for sure whether the church is really in a critical situation and how long it will take to repair," says Radzina. "If everything is OK, then we can possibly open a part of the church this winter while continuing restoration elsewhere. But it's hard to say."
Known across Europe for its 13th century architecture and magnificent 6,768-piped organ - once the largest in Europe - Dome Cathedral is one of Latvia's most cherished treasures. It is also a major tourist draw for Riga, luring more than 100,000 tourists last year. So far, the church has been closed to the public for almost two months. In this time the museum, responsible for organizing concerts and maintaining the cathedral, has already lost an estimated 20,000 lats (30,544 euros).
Yet the closure is in the interest of these visitors' lives. The investigation's main discovery was that eight buttresses had been demolished - most likely in the 18th century - in the southern part of the church, according to Deslandes. Amazingly, no professional, architect, engineer or other authority has ever noticed this underground ruin of buttresses.
"The removal of such elementary parts of classical religious architecture represents a significant entrave (sic) to the structural consistency of the building, and is without any doubt at the origin of the global structural movements affecting this part of the building," Deslandes wrote in his report, which ultimately declared the monument to be in "very critical damage condition."
However exhaustive Deslandes' inspection seemed to be, debate and skepticism continued over the cathedral's official condition. The latest assessment this June determined that the most threatening structural problem – cracks big enough to fit an entire hand in the ceiling's supporting columns – do not place the church in "critical condition," but rather just "dangerous condition." The architect is currently working with geophysicist Leontijs Petuhovs, using radiolocation methods to analyze the precise extent of the damage.
"It's something like going to the doctor and one says 'we have to cut it out' but the other says 'just take tablets'" says Kaspars Upitis, head of the Dome Cathedral's congregation.
"They said it's not so dangerous that the roof would collapse, which we were afraid of before, but it's still in critical enough condition to close down," he adds.
Although Upitis and his congregation were saddened by the recent findings, he says they are mostly eager to start a restoration that has long been needed.
"Finally we are moving ahead," Upitis says. "Everyone knew we had to renovate the church, but the money and the support wasn't there. Now that we have the state support, and European funds, we can finally start."

Broken heart
The cost of the complete renovation, which will include the church's roof, tower, columns, heating and ventilation system, stained glass windows, organ, garden and cross-gallery, is estimated at more than 8,000,000 lats - funded partly by the Riga municipality and the state budget
But it's a small price to pay for an 800-year-old Latvian symbol that has endured bombs, artillery damage, fire, nearly 800 years of extreme weather and two world wars. The cathedral is far more than a building - it's the heart of Riga.
"Dome Cathedral's history is Riga's history, it's an object of state prestige," Upitis says. "Like us, the church has been through wars. It sheltered us during the barricades in 1991, serving as a first-aid center for those enduring the cold January days, and still has bullet marks from then."
The largest place of worship in the Baltic states and the head Evangelical Lutheran church in Latvia, the foundations of the 86,112-square-foot cathedral were laid down in 1211. But construction of Dome Cathedral continued for centuries, creating an architectural mosaic of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and classical styles.
"The word Dome itself - Domus in Latin – means place of home," Kalejs adds. "It's a sacred place."
When it was open, the cathedral hosted concerts almost every week, services every day, and organized televised events for religious and national holidays – attended by the president and other prestigious guests - such as Christmas and Easter candlelight masses, and services commemorating Latvia's independence and Lacplesis Day.
"My fondest memories in the church are of midnight Easter services," Upitis reminisces. "Starting at eleven o'clock and continuing past midnight, the church is illuminated with burning candles. For me, the greatest thing was experiencing these events."
Beginning this fall, the renovation is expected to be finished in time for the cathedral's 800-year anniversary in 2011. It is hoped that the church will be in stable enough condition to continue holding Christmas mass amidst renovation.
Meanwhile, those who love the cathedral remain patient, understanding that a project of this scale cannot be rushed. Every move to save this historical treasure must be carefully considered.
"Right now we have to think of the church," Upitis says. "If it collapses and has to be built from new, it won't be Dome anymore, but like Melngalvis Nams (Blackhead's House) – a stage prop, an imitation. We won't let that happen to our church, each rock and piece of glass is historical and important."
"If it were up to me, I would open the doors right now," Radzina confesses. "It breaks my heart, but we have to listen to the specialists."