How Bucharest Rolled Entire Churches to Safety

December 15, 2016

When Bucharest faced a radical redesign in the 1980s under communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, engineers moved complete buildings hundreds of metres on metal tracks to preserve the Romanian capital’s architectural heritage.

It must be startling to look out of your window and see a centuries-old church rolling by. Even more so if you are in communist Romania in the 1980s, where news is state-controlled and everyday items rationed. And yet, between 1982 and 1988 almost a dozen churches, as well as other buildings, were moved hundreds of metres in order to save them from destruction, as dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu went about radically redesigning the heart of Bucharest, the Romanian capital.

That a communist country would go out of its way to save churches is strange enough, but the method of saving them, when other countries would probably have tried to dismantle the buildings and reassemble them elsewhere, makes the achievement all the more impressive.

“We were awestruck at those operations, comparing them with the landing on the moon for a country like Romania,” says Valentin Mandache, an architectural historian who witnessed the moving of several of the churches when he was still a young student.

At the centre of it all was Eugeniu Iordăchescu, a civil engineer who had the radical idea to place whole buildings on the equivalent of railway tracks and roll them to safety.

“I was in the area that was to be knocked down and I saw a beautiful small church and started wondering how it was possible to demolish such a jewel,” says the sprightly 87-year-old, sitting in his dining room in a nondescript apartment in Bucharest, a few miles from where the churches he saved three decades ago still stand. “I thought about the idea of moving it.”

At that time 30,000 residents were being forced from their homes, with an entire district of historical Bucharest, roughly 9,000 houses as well as churches, synagogues and other buildings demolished to make way for Ceaușescu’s grandiose vanity project, the Palace of the People and surrounding civic centre. The remodelled city centre and palace ­– which still dominates the skyline and is said to be the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon – were supposedly inspired by Ceaușescu’s visit to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

Iordăchescu, who worked at engineering and design centre the Project Institute in Bucharest, says that when he first broached the subject of moving the church with his colleagues he was told that it wasn’t possible, that the building would fall over. Some thought he was crazy for even suggesting it, but slowly the idea formed in his head.

The engineer says he reached the breakthrough after seeing a waiter pass through a crowd of people with a tray of glasses in his hand. “I saw that the secret of the glasses not falling was the tray, so I started trying to work out how to apply a tray to the building.”

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