You may have already read about Father Bob Simon, the Pennsylvania priest who spent nearly a year building a 14′ long Lego replica of St. Peter’s Basilica and its famous piazza out of half a million Lego components. The story is heartwarming and the resulting model is amazing, but there have been few details about the build itself, and there have been some inaccuracies in the reporting.
We reached out to Father Simon, and even in the midst of the Pope’s pending arrival in Philadelphia, he was kind enough to take the time to share some of his thoughts on the build and a few work in progress photos.
One of the things that’s been widely reported is that he spent between $30,000-$50,000 on the components. “Those numbers are ridiculous,” he says. “I only make $23,000 a year! The project cost me between $7,000 and $10,000.”
Father Simon was able to keep the cost down by shopping sales, buying in bulk, and buying sets. “I began by buying white bricks at Pick-A-Brick walls in Lego stores,” he says. “This is one of the most economical ways to buy Lego, especially small bricks. I used 44,000 1×1 round tiles for the cobblestones. I think 3 or 4 large cups that sell for $15.99 can hold about 20,000 tiles. I ended up buying 20,000 more of these on BrickLink.com for .01 each. I also bought about 7 or 8 Architecture Studio sets, since they contain a variety of white bricks.”
Often, when rendering an ambitious Lego build of an iconic structure like this, the real skill comes in how one creatively cannibalizes existing building sets and improvises existing Lego components to create the needed architectural elements. For a project this big, of a structure this iconic and well-known, it took some real creative thinking and clever reuse of components.
Father Simon premiered his Lego Vatican at the 2015 BrickFair convention in Virginia. This video interview with Simon, by Matthew Kay and Joshua Hanlon of BrickPodcast.com, offers a good overview of the project, some details of the construction, and how the massive model breaks down for transport.
Here are a few of the more clever features of the build:
A work in progress photo of the dome panels being constructed. “Since I didn’t care for most of the Lego sphere solutions for the dome, this part of my build required the creative use of a number of Lego elements,” he says. “It is one of the areas that I really thought outside of the box. I ended up using 1×3 bricks alternating with 1 stud round bricks. The round bricks give it the ability to curve. The ribbing is 1×8 rails with 2×2 jumper plates on top of two of them.” The panels are attached to each other using Lego o-clips modified plates. Father Simon struggled with this part of the build for a while, but when he finally landed on this panel and ribbing solution, he was able to build the dome in several afternoons of work.
The sashes along the bottom edge of the dome are upside down wheel wells with Lego skeleton arms hanging from either side. The dome’s windows are life preservers (also used as Lego toilets).
“Near the top of the main dome, I used curved Lego pieces that are normally used as parts of the body of a car,” Father Simon says. “I used them on their side in a way that I’ve never seen anyone else do.”
The piazza uses some 44,000 cobblestones, the 1×1 round Lego tile. One great benefit of this was that he was able to place diagonal pieces within these cobblestone sections, recreating a very iconic feature of the Vatican piazza design. Father Simon says: “In order to create diagonal lines in the pavement of the piazza, I used 2×2 tan tiles under the cobblestones. The diagonal lines (white 1×8 tiles mostly) are held in place by jumper plates underneath. This also allowed for the random arrangement of the cobblestones. Silver metallic 1×1 round tiles provide contrast.”
St. Peter’s Square was designed so that the colonnade resembled open arms, welcoming the world. To drive home this idea, Father Simon had fun creating a very diverse population of inhabitants for the piazza. There are numerous black-gowned nuns, priests, sailors, construction workers, a troop of Boy Scouts, cart vendors and a man selling loaves of bread, members of the Swiss Guard, and lots more. Two of the more memorable characters populating the square are a nun using a selfie stick and an Elvis impersonator.
Father Simon also couldn’t resist putting himself into the scene, taking it all in as a minifig man of the cloth.
Besides the challenge of the dome, one of the other daunting architectural elements was the curved sides of the colonnade. Father Simon ended up using curved Lego train track pieces under the red roof plates to give it its curved shape and something to attach the columns (comprised of 2×2 round tiles) to. He says of the roof plates covering the tracks: “I was worried about creating the roof this way. In the end, the solution was very simple. I just laid red plates over the tracks, loose and staggered. No one has criticized them and adult fans have complimented me on the simple solution. Sometimes it really pays to keep it simple.”
Father Simon spent two years leading up to actual construction planning the build and collecting the components. He got many of them from online providers, especially BrickLink. “You couldn’t do a project like this without BrickLink,” he says. “Without this source for buying exactly what you need at a reasonable price, the cost would be exorbitant.”
The Lego Vatican is currently on display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Father Simon’s model is part of the museum’s Vatican Splendors exhibit, showcasing significant artifacts from the history of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Philadelphia, to take part in the World Meeting of Families, on Sept 26 and Sept 27. Sadly, there are no plans for him to visit the exhibit to see Father Simon’s incredible creation.
For Lego enthusiasts, it’s always fun to look at a project like this, to scrutinize photos, to try and identify the components used and where they came from. Take a look at the gallery below. What pieces can you ID? Post what you find in the comments.