Children’s Museum Will Need to Tweak Its Plans to Renovate Church After Inconclusive Board Decision

The church today. Photo by Karen Redlener.

By Carol Tannenhauser

The Children’s Museum of Manhattan (CMOM) will have to make some changes to its proposal to turn the First Church of Christ, Scientist on 96th Street and Central Park West into a museum, because it didn’t get the go-ahead from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) at a meeting on Tuesday.

The commission neither rejected nor approved the design — leaving it in limbo until the museum can make changes that will satisfy the commissioners.

Local residents and preservationists have been battling CMOM and FXCollaborative, the architects who created the plans to turn the 127-year-old church into the museum’s new home ever since the plans were presented at a Community Board 7 Preservation Committee meeting last December. They include a rooftop addition, with a performance space and walkways, as well as the removal of some stained glass windows made by one of the 19th Century’s foremost American stained glass artists, among other exterior alterations. The church was originally designed by the same architects who designed the New York Public Library.

“A Certificate of Appropriateness, a type of LPC permit, is needed when the proposed work affects the significant architectural features of the landmark property,” explained Zodet Negron, director of communications for the LPC. “When reviewing a proposal, the Commission looks at the impact of the proposed work on the significant exterior architectural features of the building.”

At the hearing, which was public, some commissioners agreed with the criticisms of residents and preservationists, who decried the proposed changes. The commissioners stopped short of taking a vote on whether to approve or deny CMOM’s proposal, choosing instead to “take no action.” If CMOM wants to proceed, they must have LPC approval. They can still receive it by returning to the commission with revised plans, a practice that’s not uncommon, Negron said.

A rendering of the church as it would look under CMOM’s latest plan.

“We look forward to continuing our conversations with the LPC and making further refinements as the process moves forward,” CMOM said in a statement. Still, they expressed confidence in their design, saying “We strongly believe that our proposal is the best way to restore the historic building, bring it back to public use as a space to serve the community, and fulfill CMOM’s mission to be a citywide resource for all families.” The new space is already more than twice as big as the current children’s museum located on West 83rd Street.

Local City Council Member Mark Levine lent his support to CMOM. “The one-story addition on the roof will provide the Museum with essential space for their programming that could not be otherwise accommodated within the building’s existing envelope,” he wrote in a letter to the LPC. “The proposed changes to the religious-themed windows will allow the space to be filled with natural light by removing overtly ecclesiastical imagery while maintaining the historic botanical stained glass borders. The proposed changes to the windows will ensure the spaces are welcoming to all while allowing daylight into the Museum spaces, a crucial aspect of the Museum’s interior program.”

Landmark West, a local nonprofit preservationist group that opposes the plans, sent an email portraying the LPC’s decision to take no action as a victory. “Ultimately, the LPC came out strong, reaffirming their mission, and taking issue with the door removal, stair removal, signage, rooftop terrace, rooftop massing, and stained glass removal…i.e. all the elements of the proposed alteration.

This is the second time the church has been caught up in problems related to its renovation and reuse. In 2014, it was bought for $26 million by a developer who wanted to turn it into luxury condominiums. The plan received the LPC’s approval and the building was gutted, but the NYC Board of Standards and Appeals rejected the plan in 2016. CMOM bought it in 2018 for $45 million. They had hoped to open in 2021.

HISTORY, NEWS | 15 comments | permalink
    1. Robert K says:

      Sure thing !! Let it lay dormant for another decade or so.

    2. Leon says:

      It still befuddles me why the children’s museum would have purchased this building without all of these issues largely resolved. They knew it would be challenging from the experiences of the prior owners.

    3. Karen says:

      Thanks for the update and overview of this important project. As a community member whose apartment overlooks the church/CMOM building I am hopeful that the end result of this process will be a vibrant and beautiful museum for community families with thoughtfully designed rooftop expansion, as integrated as possible into the building’s design.

      • Gee says:

        As a community member whose apartment overlooks the existing CMOM, keep in mind the landscape of your neighborhood will change. Increased traffic congestion, excessive trash, lack of parking, crowded stroller filled sidewalks, idling school buses and delivery trucks and constant noise all spring, summer and fall from the outdoor interactive exhibitions. The CMOM move to 96th Street can’t come soon enough for some of us. Wishing them a successful move.

        • Theo says:

          I was planning on making an offer on a coop unit that overlooks the old church. I backed out when I researched the building and learned that the Children’s Museum was in it’s future. The strollers, the traffic, the busses, the screeching kids – my idea of hell, too.

    4. Neighbor says:

      Most of the people who oppose CMOM’s plan welcome the museum into the neighborhood and endorse their purchase of the church. We oppose THIS plan. The rooftop additions are like a stye on the eyelid of the classic, Carrere & Hastings masterpiece. CMOM’s program does not NEED an event space and walkway, with their associated machinery, added to the roof. They already have ample space, including the former reading room waiting to be used as an event space. We applaud the LPC and urge a revised plan that will respect the landmark AND benefit young and old in the community.

    5. Shawn Cooper says:

      If these alterations don’t get approved I’ll be in the street protesting. Sounds like they’re fine with letting it rot to the point where it’ll have to be demolished.

    6. Neighbor says:

      There is no dichotomy of maximal alterations vs. nothing. There are many ways the building can be adapted to museum use AND preserve the features that provided the basis for it to be landmarked in the first place.
      As one speaker testified at the LPC hearing, “cultural vandalism” is the same, whether perpetrated by a for-profit developer or a non-profit. Let’s have a conversion to museum use that also respects the landmark and its place in the neighborhood (and city as a whole).

    7. Chris m says:

      C’mon people. Just approve this. A total upgrade for the community.

    8. Isabella says:

      It’s interesting to hear this debate. Only there’s this little thing no one seems to want to acknowledge called the “Landmarks Law”. Let me repeat Landmarks Law. We in NY seem not to let the law interfere with our well-heeled institutions or rich developers. That’s why there’s so much rezoning of our neighborhoods for developers to build 800 foot tall towers in residential communities zoned for max 350 foot tall zoning restrictions. The law is something to be “worked around”. Well, as a tax-paying resident of this community I will support the individual landmark which is a national treasure and the decision of the Landmarks Commission and Community Board 7 and the many organizations opposing this plan, and support CMOM to go back and redesign their proposal. As someone said in the hearing, “this landmark is not a blank canvas”. CMOM knew the individual landmark designation when they bought the church-so they should have considered whether they could work within the confines of such a designation. Some years ago a plan like this one, radical and inappropriate in nature by a famous architect was canned by the NY Public Library after enormous opposition and the expenditure of enormous money. And everyone was the better for it. The Beaux-Arts architects of the library are the same as this church. Yet here CMOM decides to try the same thing learning nothing from recent history.
      Everyone has welcomed the Children’s Museum to the neighborhood. Were I them I would check my ego, and design a plan that is appropriate for a landmark of this distinction. And for its location on a landmarked Central Park. I don’t see the Landmarks Commission or the community approving it otherwise.

      • garyw95 says:

        You do know that CMOM is not a ‘rich developer’ right? And they have publicly stated they have been working with the landmark commission staff for some time?
        Preservation is about fusing as much as is reasonable of the old landmark but not ‘hiding’ the new use as some seem to prefer in order to protect views, play amateur preservationist or under some misguided notion that this will one day be a 19th century church again. If the handful of opponents had their way this building would literally turn to dust while waiting for a 19th century congregation to try to raise the money to occupy the building again. FX seems to be on the right trail with all elements and have created a great starting point of fusing the old – restoring this beautiful but rotting landmark – while subtly celebrating the new use. Im sure thats why nearly every elected has supported the changes – they generally dont come out without strong community support! – and so many local to national architects and preservationists who get what landmarking is all about. Individual landmarks are appropriately and carefully altered all over the city – tough and appropriate paths are explored and decisions are made. IF there werent such a process – and the job of the commission were to just make sure landmarks can’t be updated there would be no need for a commission!

        • Ground Control says:

          CMOM is definitely a well-heeled institution. One need only look at their board who have the financial power to influence politicians who depend on big donations to run for office. It’s no secret that they bought the church for $45 million with no mortgage. So let’s just say they have sway! But that doesn’t mean that the community, the community board or the Landmarks Commission shouldn’t fight to preserve one of the most important landmarks in NY. You just don’t see it’s the wrong plan! And apparently you don’t care too much about the neighbors either who live like 10 feet from this imagined playground!
          As for the handful of opponents? Every building surrounding the church wrote in opposition to this plan. As did the larger community. As did the Community Board.
          So sorry your facts don’t add up. As for “playing amateur preservationists” who are in opposition to this plan let me list some of the “amateurs” who oppose this plan.

          The Society for the Architecture of the City
          The New York Landmarks Conservancy
          Historic Districts Council
          Landmark West
          Alliance for a Human Scale City
          Save Harlem Now
          Save Central Park
          CPW Neighbors Association
          Charles Warren AIA Architect & Leading Historian on Carrère & Hastings author of-Two Volume Set Carrère & Hastings, Architects
          Rossello Salazar AIA Architects
          etc., etc., etc.

          • garyw95 says:

            u guys really get worked up about saving a falling apart building! love the conspiracy theories about this incredible organization and their mission influencing every elected official to go against the will of their constituents. thats just not the way these guys operate!
            at least as reported a long list of pretty darn impressive and well respected organizations, academics and architects – and the community boards chairs (and its preservation committee chairs!!) – came out in support. so can we at least agree that maybe issues of preservation and adaptive reuse are a bit more complex? these things really are not black and white. otherwise a bunch of empty rotting landmarked churches and synagogues are going to be falling apart instead of being restored and brought back to life. its just too bad there aren’t more organizations like this one who are able to take on such a preservation project and return the building to public use too!

    9. AL says:

      Bravo LPC !!

      The design proposed by FX Collaborative is a a disgrace to Carrere & Hastings individual landmark. The changes on the roof are particularly awful and can be seen from adjacent streets and Central Park.

      We welcome CMOM in the neighborhood but please respect the few historic buildings we have in that part of town. After all, CMOM will most likely not be there forever and LPC is here to protect our common heritage.

      So far so good but LPC needs to keep protecting us from developers.