Civil engineer who rescued a dozen historic churches in Bucharest from Ceausescu’s bulldozers
EUGENIU IORDACHESCU, who has died aged 89, was a Romanian civil engineer who challenged the architectural whims of the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena and saved some dozen churches, dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries, from destruction.
In the late 1970s, after a visit to North Korea, Ceausescu decided to bulldoze 80 per cent of the historic centre of Bucharest, once celebrated as “the Paris of the East”, to create a Pyongyang-style “Civic Centre” with wide boulevards, stone-faced apartment blocks, gurgling fountains, and a gigantic “House of the Republic”.
The demolitions had already started when Iordachescu, a civil engineer and teacher at an institute in Bucharest, was consulted about altering the width of the city’s main Kiseleff road: “Someone said 50 metres, another 70 metres. Then Ceausescu said, ‘Make the boulevard 90 metres wide’. That had major implications. You had to destroy 20 metres more on each side.”
When he visited the site, Iordachescu was enchanted by a small Orthodox church, Schitul Maicilor (“the Nuns’ Convent”), built in 1725 with beautiful paintings on its walls. It was, he recalled, “a jewel that had to be saved no matter the cost. After months of wracking my brains, God enlightened me.”
Inspired by “the waiter who carries glasses on a tray without spilling a drop”, he imagined detaching the church from its foundations and mounting it on a “concrete tray” to be moved elsewhere.
Iordachescu’s colleagues thought he was mad, but eventually a process was developed whereby the ground was dug out from under the church, with a reinforced concrete support created and the foundations severed. Tracks were laid, and in June 1982 the 7,450-tonne building was duly lifted, placed on rails and, with hydraulic jacks and winches, moved 245 metres out of harm’s way to a new location.
Since Romania was largely cut off from the outside world Iordachescu had to rely on local equipment and technology. His efforts eventually encompassed the relocation of nearly 30 buildings, including a dozen churches, notably the Mihai Voda Church, built in 1594 by Prince Michael the Brave, and the 9,000-tonne Orthodox synodal palace, which was moved with its basement intact.
Iordachescu’s team also moved a bank, a hospital and several apartment blocks, often with gas and water lines attached and people inside them. As his son Adrian recalled, his father was always on site, “because he heard people would [attempt] sabotage, so he would stay 24 hours a day”.
Despite Iordachescu’s efforts, 22 churches were bulldozed, including some which were scheduled for relocation, but which fell victim to Ceausescu’s impatience. Meanwhile, most of the saved churches were relocated to the shadows of Sovietstyle apartment blocks, the dictator not wishing to remind citizens of Bucharest of their religious heritage. Iordachescu had to demolish a part of the synodal palace after relocation after Ceausescu’s wife, Elena, insisted it was still visible from the street.
Yet paradoxically Ceausescu paid for moving the churches, either from some lingering superstition from his peasant upbringing – or because of critical press comment in the West.
Eugeniu Iordachescu was born in the eastern Romanian city of Braila on November 8 or 9 1929 (sources vary), graduated from the Bucharest Institute of Civil Engineering in 1953, and in 1984 took a doctorate in engineering.
At the time of the overthrow of the Ceausescus in 1989, he was supervising the relocation of the little 18th-century church of St Stephen’s, Bucharest.
Iordachescu continued his teaching and engineering work in the years after the Romanian Revolution, and in 2016 the Romanian Orthodox church awarded him the Patriarchal Cross, its highest honour for lay people.
Iordachescu was married and had two sons.
Eugeniu Iordachescu, born November 8 or 9 1929, died January 4 2019
Iordachescu and the Antim Ivireanul monastery compound, one of many historic gems he saved from destruction