Frederick Baird: Left his mark with Tremont church design that landed it in ‘Deer Hunter’

Since its earliest days Cleveland has been a city of people with a wide variety of religious beliefs. These varies beliefs have manifested many church structures—from modest storefronts to ornate cathedrals.

St. Theodosius CathedralOne of the most memorable Cleveland religious sites is St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral. This remarkable building has stood at733 Starkweather Ave. in Tremont since 1913.

Essentially an outpost of the Russian Empire in Cleveland, much of the church’s early financing is said to have been provided by a missionary fund supervised by Tsar Nicholas II. The church’s first pastor, Jason Kappanadze, was a native of Georgia in the Russian Caucasus.

Given these factors the identity of the church’s architect strikes a jarring note. His name was Frederick Baird, a Cleveland native who apparently never actually set foot in Russia.

Baird was inspired by photos of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, which has a remarkable story in its own right. The church was proposed as an expression of gratitude for the Russian defeat of Napoleon in 1812. Construction took decades, with the church not being consecrated until the late 1880s.

In a nation filled with grand churches, Cathedral of Christ the Savior was said to have been among the most beautiful. The church’s life was destined to be surprisingly short.

Former seminarian Joseph Stalin ordered its destruction in 1931 to make way for a grand Soviet municipal building that was never built. Instead, a swimming pool was placed on the site until a re-creation of the cathedral was built in 2000 and now stands on the Moscow site—a symbol of changing times and a recognition of the merits of the lost original building.

Color stained glass window on the interior of St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Cleveland Ohio in 1978.Frederick Baird’s early training was unusual. Having been brought to Northeast Ohio at the age of three, he was a graduate of West High School and worked under the supervision of Charles Schweinfurth for three-and-a-half years. He then worked for Coburn & Barnum before taking on greater responsibility with Lehman and Schmitt.

In working with these firms, Baird had the opportunity to learn practical skills directly from some of the best-known Cleveland architects of the era.

Baird designed St. Theodosius in a traditional Russian style, the building being surmounted by 13 onion domes. The largest dome represents Jesus Christ. The next four domes represent the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, with the other eight domes marking the remaining apostles.

The church was consecrated on Sunday, July 20, 1913, and completed at a cost of $70,000—a sum equivalent to $1.9 million today.
 
Father Jason Kappanadze oversaw the building’s completion and was then recalled to Russia to teach in a seminary. With the outbreak of World War I, the next few years of his life read like a chapter from “Dr. Zhivago.” He survived the war, the Russian Revolution, and the chaos of the Russian Civil War. In 1922 he escaped Russia with his wife Mary—supposedly with the aid of a Communist official who had once been a classmate of his son.

Father Kappanadze returned to Cleveland to lead St. Theodosius until his retirement in 1957. Having survived so much, he and Mary lost their lives in a tragic car accident in 1962, 60 years after his involvement with the congregation began.

Film stars John Savage and Rutanya Alda marry in St. Theodosius Cathedral in Tremont for the film "The Deer Hunter"The church has an unusual item on its resume. It served as a set for the 1978 film “The Deer Hunter,” which briefly saw the sanctuary occupied by some of the finest actors of their generation: Robert DiNiro, Meryl Streep, and John Cazale.

Movie set, Tsarist outpost, spiritual home of a large congregation, St. Theodosius has fulfilled many roles since being completed in 1913. In excellent repair, this beloved building is well into its second century of service to its devoted community.

And what of Frederick Baird? Having completed this masterful building, he announced his retirement in 1917 at the early age of 50. He traveled extensively for a time.

Returning to Cleveland, he was diagnosed with cancer. On January 16, 1920, he died and joined a number of friends, colleagues, and one-time competitors in Lake View Cemetery.

Read more articles by Tom Matowitz.

Recently retired after a 37-year career teaching public speaking, Tom Matowitz has had a lifelong interest in local and regional history. Working as a freelance author for the past 20 years he has written a number of books and articles about Cleveland’s past. He has a particular interest in the area’s rich architectural history.