Armenia in the Desert


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RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Drivers along one of this desert community’s busiest thoroughfares are likely to do a double-take the first time they speed past a vision of Eurasia in St. Garabed Armenian Apostolic Church.

Consecrated in January, as designed by the namesake principal of Palm Desert, Calif.-based Charles L. Martin, Architect, the project incorporates many features from Armenian houses of worship more than a millennium old.

However, in a cost-saving move, the church utilizes a cladding option that wasn’t available to those ancient builders: thin-veneer travertine tile imported from Armenia.


200 Nigosian IMG 7267Click photo to enlargeFor Martin, designing St. Garabed was definitely a labor of love requiring him to get very acquainted with the nuances of the Armenian Apostolic Church, including a trip to Armenia after getting the commission.

Much of Martin’s practice is devoted to stores, offices and single-family homes. However, a commission to remodel an off-campus apartment into the Newman Center for the local community college led to work designing St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Palm Desert, and from there to St. Garabed.

“I wanted to do it [St. George] so it didn’t look like an American architect got a hold of it,” Martin says. “It turned out to be a good little church.”

That work led members of St. Garabed’s building committee to contact Martin, he says.

Stan Asaro, owner of Asaro Builders Inc., the Palm Desert, Calif.-based contractor who built the project and who worked with the congregation for several years, explains the church started construction with a parish hall.

However, the church also obtained a conditional-use permit for the church project in 1999. It was modified in 2001, but expired in 2005 due to inactivity on the part of the congregation.200 Nigosian IMG 6440Click photo to enlarge

“After building their hall, they ran out of funds,” Asaro says. “So, when they wanted to restart construction, they had to start over again with the city. That cost them a couple years, just going back through it again.”

When they finally hired Martin, the architect says he was told the St. Garabed building committee admired his work at St. George, but they didn’t want their own church to look anything like the Greek-influenced design he had created.

“They said, ‘We like what you do,’ and I said, ‘Okay, turn me loose,’” Martin relates. “I told them I would like to go to Armenia, and they said they wouldn’t pay for a trip, but I had mileage and I took out for two weeks alone; I didn’t know anyone there.”

Once in Armenia, he was able to hook up with an English-speaking driver who took him all over that country, even into areas within shouting distance of Iran.

Because Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt the Christian religion (historians place the event in A.D. 301), many of the churches bear little resemblance to today’s religious houses.

Martin tells of one visit to what he describes as, “a little church in the sky.”

“It took us a couple hours to get there,” he says. “It was a Sunday morning and as we wandered toward the church the bells began ringing. I went inside and there was no glass in the church, but they’ve been having services there every day since it was built.”