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December 1, 2008

Houses of Worship Choosing to Avoid Landmark Status

by Robin Pogrebin, copyright 2008 by The New York Times Company

For more than 100 years the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church, with its serpentine stone and clock tower, lent a bucolic yet dignified air to the corner of Fourth and Ovington Avenues in Brooklyn.

Then, on Oct. 21, a bulldozer laid waste to the structure, known as the Green Church.

Daunted by the cost of repairing and maintaining the 1899 building, the congregation had sold it to a developer for $9.75 million. He plans to build a 70-unit apartment building, and the congregation will erect a smaller church on the site.

The destruction went forward even though preservationists and the area’s City Council representative had repeatedly implored the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to schedule a hearing on potential landmark status for the church, which was on the National and State Register of Historic Places.

Feelings on the issue ran so high that at a City Council hearing last year on the reappointment of Robert B. Tierney as chairman of the landmarks commission, the city councilman, Vincent J. Gentile, publicly berated the agency for declining to act. “It was a part of our history in this community being torn away from us,” Mr. Gentile said in an interview. “The sad part is, it didn’t have to be.”

Houses of worship are among the most sensitive issues facing the landmarks commission. Mandating that a church be preserved can not only impose a heavy financial burden on a congregation, it also raises the specter of state interference with religious freedom. So the commission has been especially loath to take on churches or synagogues that don’t want to be designated.

“Nobody wants to be in a fight with a religious institution,” said Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, a preservation group.

But many preservationists and at least one commission member argue that the landmarks commission has not been aggressive enough in protecting churches from the overheated real estate market of the last few years. Given that churches tend to be low-rise buildings in choice residential locations, they note, the structures became prime targets for developers intent on building high-rise apartment towers.

In the last few years many houses of worship around the city have struck such construction deals, from St. Ann’s Church in the East Village, which is becoming a New York University dormitory, to Congregation Shearith Israel on the Upper West Side, where apartments are to be planted atop a new community house next door.

West-Park Presbyterian Church, a ruddy Romanesque Revival bulwark at 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, has negotiated a deal to raze its church house so a developer can build a condo tower there.

Preservationists argue that too many religious buildings have been lost and more are at risk, even as the New York economy faces a downturn.

In the case of the Green Church in Bay Ridge, a landmarks commission spokeswoman cited “advanced deterioration” as a deciding factor in the agency’s refusal to schedule a hearing. She ticked off “severe damage to parts of the roof” and “the significant projected cost of repairing the building, as well as strong opposition from the congregation.”

The church’s pastor, the Rev. Robert Emerick, vigorously supported demolition as a strategy to enable the church to survive. “Christianity is not about a building, it’s about people doing work in the name of Christ,” he said. “Now we have the chance to be a real Christian church and not have to worry about fixing the roof all the time.”

But Stephen F. Byrns, an architect who serves on the 11-member landmarks agency, says that religious buildings tend to be structural gems without strong advocates and thus demand special consideration.

“To me houses of worship are incredibly important buildings that often represent the finest architecture, the noblest ambitions, the richest budgets, and they are very vulnerable,” he said.

Mr. Tierney defended the commission’s record on houses of worship, citing 12 it has designated in his five-year tenure. Five were named individual landmarks and seven won protection as part of historic districts. (Late in October it added St. Stephen’s Roman Catholic Church in Murray Hill, built in the Gothic Revival style in 1854.)

“I’ve made it a matter of special concern,” Mr. Tierney said. He added that he struggles to balance the need to preserve historical treasures with the economic straits of religious institutions. Dozens of churches have fallen on hard times in recent years as demographic changes in the city whittled away at their congregations.

“They’re constantly in need of resources to carry out the mission,” Mr. Tierney said. “What do you do when your entire parish is gone, and there’s nobody left, and you have this marvelous building, and it’s frightfully expensive to maintain?”

Among the religious buildings designated on his watch, Mr. Tierney noted, were the first Catholic churches to become landmarks in 28 years: St. Aloysius on West 132nd Street, known for its ornamental polychrome bands of brick and terra cotta, and the Church of All Saints on East 129th Street, an imposing Gothic Revival masterpiece with wheel clerestory windows. Both won landmark status last year

But while preservationists applauded those designations, they said the commission bypassed even more important treasures like St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Harlem, completed in 1907 on West 118th Street near St. Nicholas Avenue. Known for its flamboyantly ornate neo-Gothic facade, fan-vaulted ceiling, spiky pinnacles and stained-glass windows, it was cited as one of the seven most important sites worth saving by the Preservation League of New York State.

"My community loves this church," Representative Charles B. Rangel wrote in a 2004 letter to Cardinal Edward M. Egan.

During years of pressure from Harlem advocates, the commission has declined to hold a hearing on St. Thomas, saying the building had already been significantly altered and its congregation was largely inactive.

Some preservationists and architectural historians accuse the commission and the New York archdiocese of grudgingly going along with the designations of All Saints and St. Aloysius in exchange for the omission of St. Thomas.

“This was their bargain,” said Michael Henry Adams, the author of “Harlem: Lost and Found” (Monacelli Press, 2001), a history of the neighborhood’s architecture. “To me it’s like the decision of Solomon.”

Mr. Tierney said the determination was made strictly on the merits. “One was much, much harder to do than the other two,” he said. “Ultimately that was what we were able to achieve, and I think it’s a significant achievement.”

The archdiocese opposed designating St. Thomas on the grounds that services are no longer held there and that the building is no longer essential to its religious mission. “It has not functioned as a Catholic church in several years,” said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese. “I would not think it was worthy of landmark status.”

He said the archdiocese did not resist landmark designations for St. Aloysius or All Saints because their situation was more stable. All Saints has a school attached to it that is still operating, for example. “We chose not to oppose the landmarking,” Mr. Zwilling said, adding that All Saints and St. Aloysius were “obviously deserving.”

Mr. Zwilling emphasizes that the archdiocese in any case does not give orders to the commission. “It would be overstating to say the landmarks commission does what we want them to do,” he said. “They’re an independent body.”

For preservationists one of the most striking cases that the commission declined to hear was that of St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church on Avenue B at Eighth Street in the East Village, built in 1848 by Irish immigrants. Its main building was closed in 2001 because of structural concerns; the final Mass was said in the basement of its school next door in 2004.

The archdiocese said the church had outlived its usefulness, given that other churches nearby could serve parishioners and that the building was too costly to repair.

Opponents of St. Brigid’s demolition filed a lawsuit in 2005 and another in 2006. The first suit was dismissed; the second wound its way up to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, where it is still pending.

In a letter to Mr. Tierney in December 2006, a group of prominent city politicians requested that the commission schedule a full hearing on St. Brigid’s, citing the church’s “rich history” and “unusual Carpenter Gothic style.”

“St. Brigid’s is structurally sound, contrary to the claims of the archdiocese,” the petitioners said, adding that the exterior “still bears much of its original architectural integrity.”

But in a letter dated Jan. 22, 2007, Mr. Tierney said he and his staff had decided that the building’s “structural instability” and changes to its original form through alterations precluded it from consideration as a historic landmark.

“I know you understand that the commission must make difficult choices as we carry out our mission to protect the best of the city’s treasures,” he added.

In the end an anonymous donor stepped forward with a $20 million gift to allow St. Brigid’s to reopen as a parish church. Work on the building is under way.

Sometimes a church negotiates a landmark designation that still allows it to cash in on development deals. The most prominent example is the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights, which persuaded the commission in 2002 to omit two parcels on the 11-acre grounds of the Episcopal cathedral from the agency’s hearings calendar to allow for development.

To the distress of many local residents a 20-story, 300-unit rental apartment tower is approaching completion on the southeast corner of the grounds. The second parcel, along the northern edge of the campus on 113th Street, on which Columbia University has an option, has yet to be developed.

In 2003 the landmarks commission designated the cathedral itself a landmark. In a bid to halt the building projects, the City Council overturned the designation four months later, arguing that the entire cathedral campus should be designated a landmark. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg vetoed the council’s decision, but the council then overrode the veto.

“St. John the Divine should be landmarked in totality,” said Bill Perkins, who represented the area at the time on the City Council. ”It is, quite frankly, an insult to the historical value of this world-renowned church to have it piecemeal like this.”

Religious groups have historically opposed designation of their buildings. In 1982 the Committee of Religious Leaders of the City of New York issued a 40-page report asserting that designating church buildings as protected landmarks was “a threat to religious freedom.”

“We strongly object to the forced diversion by government of resources dedicated for religious ministry to serve instead the cause of architectural preservation,” it said.

A year later a bill was introduced in the New York State Senate and Assembly exempting houses of worship from local preservation laws. The measure was defended by the New York Board of Rabbis, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York and the Council of Churches of the City of New York. But it faced fierce opposition from preservationists. It never came to a vote.

At West-Park Presbyterian on the Upper West Side, the active membership has dwindled to 20 who now worship at a church nearby, and homeless people camp out in the building’s doorways. The pastor, the Rev. Dr. Robert L. Brashear, said he simply wanted to see his congregation endure, even if that means worshiping in a new, more modest setting.

“It’s not just saving one small little church,” he said. “It’s preserving a place of active and vital ministry for the future.”

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