With its 13 golden domes soaring toward the sky from Chicago’s Northwest Side, St. Joseph the Betrothed Ukrainian Catholic Church, designed by Zenon Mazurkevich, transcends the flatlands and makes the heart skip a beat.
Architectural Digest last year called it one of the 10 most beautiful churches in America for weddings and “a Chicago landmark in its own right.”
Mr. Mazurkevich, the Ukraine-born architect who came up with the lofty design by combining Byzantine touches of gold with muscular concrete and curved glass, was memorialized at the church over the weekend.
He died Oct. 26 at Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University Hospital after suffering a traumatic brain injury in a fall while visiting his local Wawa convenience store to get his morning coffee, according to his son Dorian. Mr. Mazurkevich, a former Chicagoan who ran Zen Architects in Philadelphia, was 79.
The church building he created at 5000 N. Cumberland “is this gigantic, shiny, imposing yet quirky spaceship-like object located in one of the most unexpected and unassuming places in the city where no tourist and few locals would ever have a reason to wander,” said Garrett Karp, former manager of Open House Chicago for the Chicago Architecture Foundation. “It is one of Chicago’s best-kept secrets.”
Young “Zen” was born in Roznitiv, Ukraine. His family owned oil wells, but, with World War II, the Mazurkeviches wound up in a displaced persons camp in Ingolstadt, Germany. At school, he befriended a German boy with an architect dad. He loved visiting their home, according to his son, who said, “He would just watch his friend’s father draw” blueprints.
The family immigrated to Toronto, where Mr. Mazurkevich graduated from the University of Toronto.
“He got on a bus, went straight to Chicago because he knew about Mies van der Rohe,” his son said.
Because Mr. Mazurkevich spoke German, he was able to connect with the design giant and worked for him for a time.
Eventually, he sought a job at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, according to his son. A Skidmore staffer asked him, “You work for Mies van der Rohe, and you want to work here? Are you crazy?”
But the pay was better at Skidmore, so he joined the firm and helped work on the construction of an office building at 500 N. Michigan and on the John Hancock Center, once the tallest building in the world.
Mr. Mazurkevich then got a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and additional certifications in city planning and urban design, his son said.
He became a chief architect for Ford Motor Land Development, doing hotels and high-rises in Detroit and New York. In 1973, he opened his architecture firm in Philadelphia.
When he was selected from about 30 architects to build St. Joseph the Betrothed, his ultramodern design wasn’t immediately embraced. Church representatives were impressed. But one still asked him: “Is this a Ukrainian church?”
In an oral history recorded by his son, Mr. Mazurkevich recalled his reply: “We’re not in Ukraine. We’re in the 20th century. It’s got to be a Chicago church. . . .the birthplace of modern architecture.”
St. Joseph’s features 13 domes, the tallest one representing Jesus Christ, the other 12 his Apostles. Four of the 12 are a little higher than the others for the gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The church’s interior, with circle motifs and other symbolism, is traditional, according to Ukrainian Magazine. The first mass at the new church was celebrated in 1976.
By combining soaring domes with everyday materials like concrete, steel and glass, St. Joseph’s represents where “the earthly and the heavenly touch,” said the church’s Rev. Myron Panchuk.
George Matwyshyn, a historian who gives tours of Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood, said pilot friends have told him they’ve used St. Joseph’s to line up their planes for landing at O’Hare “because it’s unique, and you can see the gold domes very easily.”
Mr. Mazurkevich enjoyed the challenge of designing churches and a variety of other projects after the monotony of skyscrapers, his son said, because, “in a high-rise, you design one floor, and every single floor is the same as the other.”
According to his family, Mr. Mazurkevich also worked on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church in Baltimore and interior renovations to St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in Chicago.
He had a fondness for turtleneck sweaters and jazz. When he died, his family was playing Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.”
In addition to his son Dorian, Mr. Mazurkevich is survived by his wife Ulana Baluch Mazurkevich, son Marko and two grandchildren.