By Carol Tannenhauser
“You can do better” was the message sent by Community Board (CB) 7’s Preservation Committee to the architects who presented their plans, last Thursday night, for transforming the former First Church of Christ, Scientist, at 96th Street and Central Park West, into the new home of the Children’s Museum of Manhattan (CMOM).
The committee passed a resolution to “disapprove” CMOM’s application to the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), which has the final say about the “appropriateness” of any changes to the exterior of the building.
“Are windows exterior or interior?” someone asked.
Completed in 1903, the church is a New York City landmark, located within the federally designated Central Park West Historic District. CB 7 advises the LPC, conveying its and the community’s opinions, gleaned from public meetings like the four-hour one held on December 12th.
“We don’t want to say no, because we like the idea of having the museum up here,” said Page Cowley, a member of CB 7, who is also an architect and chair of the board of Landmark West, a local nonprofit preservation group, “but there has to be a gentler way.”
The committee’s decision was itself gentle. CB 7 Board President Mark Diller told FXCollaborative, the architects, if they amend the plans before the next full board meeting in January, integrating input from the committee and community, the disapproval could be reversed. Diller said he would keep the resolution “in my pocket for now.”
The discontent with the design centered on three main areas: the doors, the windows, and the roof. The doors were the least contentious issue. Although the plans require removing historic granite steps, they do so to make the building intrinsically ADA accessible. One committee member did question the appropriateness of the resulting 11-foot doors in a children’s museum.
The windows — now stained glass, some with religious iconography — spurred greater debate, with some members urging that they be salvaged, repaired, and displayed. The architects explained that their goal in replacing them with transparent glass was to let in natural light and “open up a building to the community that has historically been closed.”
The subject of the roof led to an explosion of criticism. The current plans create what one committee member called, “another city up there.” They envision the addition of a rooftop deck, with walkways, grass, and a glassed-in “performance and community center” (which some critics deemed “an event space.”) There will also be approximately two floors of mechanical equipment on the roof. Most of the objections were about the negative effects these elements would have on the integrity of the architecture, and on neighboring buildings, residents, and passersby.
The architects sat listening carefully, nodding and taking notes, as committee and community members spoke.
Richard McElhiney, a neighbor and architect, represented the broad opinion: “The rooftop addition radically reconfigures the building in an unfortunate way,” he said. “It shatters the roof and erases it as a compositional element. This formerly proud and solid building is saddled with a piggyback structure on top. I urge the museum’s team to make sure all this additional volume is critical to your mission, and then to find a way to preserve the character of this uniquely wonderful building.”
“The proposed additions to the roof are several boxy clumps, plunked down on the church’s roof that are readily viewed from all sides,” Debra Blank, also a neighbor, added, flatly.
There was another faction arguing about the fate of the church. Led by Pastor Terry B. Starks, who said he “pastored” the church several years ago, a sizable contingent of former parishioners came to reclaim the building for its original mission. “It is sacred ground,” a woman said. A committee member pointed out that CMOM was the legal owner of the church, which it had purchased for $45 million from a developer in 2017, after the LPC turned down the developer’s plans for converting the church into luxury condominiums.
“This will never be a church again,” he said, adding,“in my opinion.”
“God has an opinion, too,” the woman answered.
FXCollaborative has about a month before the full community board will meet to vote on the Preservation Committee’s resolution. We’ll let you know if the architects return with revised plans, and how the matter is resolved.