An Old Church Has a New Life as a Theater; Shows This Weekend!

By Bobby Panza

Unbeknownst to many, that beautiful church building on the corner of West 86th and Amsterdam is being used as a theatre and artist space now.

The Center at West Park has been operating inside this New York City landmark since 2016 as a nonprofit community performing arts center; producing shows, hosting artist residencies and offering rehearsal space. The grounds are also home to Russian Arts Theater & Studio, the award-winning nonprofit that was founded in NYC, 2004. Formerly, Shen Wei Dance Arts, a premier international dance company and On Site Opera operated out of the space but have since moved.

Originally though, this domain was once indeed a church, and in fact still operates as one on a much smaller scale. It is the home of the Park Presbyterian Church, founded in 1852. Before coming to West 86th in 1884 the congregation had a chapel made of timber on West 84th Street and West End Avenue.

The story goes that upon moving to their new West 86th Street location, a wealthy pastor, Anson Phelps Atterbury (1855-1931) had a vision for a ‘grand church,’ because the IRT subway lines were being built and his hope was the Broadway line would bring more people to the congregation.

Pastor Atterbury commissioned prominent New York architect Leopold Eidilitz (1823-1908) to build the chapel in 1883. Eidilitz is best known for his work on the New York State Capitol, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and P.T. Barnum’s residence, Iranistan,” the Moorish Revival mansion in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The chapel was completed in 1985.

Eidilitz described the chapel he built on 86th as, “muscular,” using diminutive midblock brick in a Romanesque Revival style. After another $100,000 was raised, the main sanctuary, where the main theatre space is now, was built in 1889-90 to designs by Henry Franklin Kilburn (1844-1905). Kilburn was particularly known for church architecture, but towards the end of his career he became focused on “ecclesiastical commissions.” The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission reports that, “Kilburn was also the architect of many private residences, factories, stables, and theaters in Manhattan.”

Kilburn was responsible for crafting the intricately carved brown and red sandstone we still see today, in a stylistic continuation of Eidlitz’s Romanesque chapel, but re-cladding the brick chapel in sandstone and adding an offset diminutive tower and the giant ribbed bell-domed bell tower on the corner.

There’s rich history in these walls. In 1978, West-Park Presbyterian Church began openly welcoming LGBTQ+ members as part of the More Light Movement. From 1980 to 1985, West Park was home to The Shakespeare Center and the revered Riverside Shakespeare Company. From 1987 to 1991, God’s Love We Deliver, worked out of West Park’s kitchen to serve up to 250 meals per day to people living with AIDS.

Facing financial hardship due to smaller attendance and diminishing donations, the congregation changed to a shared space in 2008, just before it was declared a landmark by the NYC Landmarks Preservation in 2010.

Today, The Center at West Park is a burgeoning community and performing arts space, working through Covid like many other nonprofits. Last March, similar to Broadway, they were in the midst of running Hamlet Isn’t Dead: Twelfth Night, and had to halt production with pandemic regulations coming in from Governor Cuomo in Albany. Since, they’ve adjusted to working virtually and have events in store. Center staff and artists have pivoted what was intended to be an in-person experience into a virtual experience with the singular goal of supporting creative artists by providing them with a space to create and a platform to reach audience members.

Rehearsal space.

The Center at West Park is in the midst of virtually presenting their Spring 2021 ‘Project Movement Puppetry Festival.’ It kicked off on April 23 and will run for three nights. Artists include Liz Oakley, Evolve Puppets, Janel Schults, Amanda Card, Maggie Winston and Owlicorn.

Rowan Magee, one of the three Object Movement Festival Curators, told the WSR, We’ll present 3 artists per night, each presenting about 10 minutes of puppetry film and a talkback afterwards. On Sunday, we’ll offer all 6 works without commentary for those who want an all-puppets-no-humans experience. We’ve been improving our digital residency to give artists more attention and time with each other so showings can really shine, and I think these viewing options and the format will ensure you enjoy what you have time to see.” Maiko Kikuchi and Justin Perkins are also curators of the Object Movement Festival.

The Center at West Park is currently in review of their fall 2021 artist residency program where six individual artists or companies will be offered residencies at CWP to produce and perform original works of theater, dance, music, and interdisciplinary performance, as part of ‘THE INTERRUPTION: A Curated Performance Series.’ Each Residency will culminate in a weekend of three ticketed public performances. THE INTERRUPTION is curated by CWP Guest Curators Debra Ann Byrd, Melanie Greene, and Elliot Reed.

West Park Presbyterian Church (WPPC) is still the owner of the building at W86th and Amsterdam. They maintain a presence in the small chapel in the administrative tower. Pre-Covid, they conducted weekly, Open Mic Nights,’ as an open forum for anyone to perform.  Additionally, they have a weekly bible study group and celebrate high holidays, Christmas and Easter, as a congregation. You can find their website here. The WPPC only uses the sanctuary space for their yearly fundraiser and a music festival, which traditionally has occurred in October.  

The Center at West Park, (Pre-Covid) rented space to Lighthouse Chapel International, which is also known as the Pentecostal Christian Group. The Center at West Park rents to this chapter specifically, and currently they’re in discussion with them to return in the very near future to resume services weekly.

Readers have written the WSR asking questions about the long running ‘sidewalk shed’ that has been set up outside the Center at West Park for almost 20 years now. Here’s more information on the matter, as renovation needs will likely keep that in place

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ART, HISTORY, NEWS | 6 comments | permalink
    1. Alex R says:

      What a terrific article! I was admiring that building just today.

    2. Nelson says:

      I saw a production of “Miss Julie” there in the 1980’s!

    3. Anna says:

      Thanks for this article. I have happy memories of volunteering one summer with The Riverside Shakespeare Company and seeing them perform in NYC parks. It’s great to hear that the church is still a home for theater.

    4. Don Abrams says:

      Let’s not forget the gymnastic classes for kids given by the charismatic Rudy for many years in one of the upper level spaces. I remember climbing the several levels of old wooden stairs to get to his gym. Rudy was a wonderful fixture in the neighborhood, giving our daughter and countless other kids confidence in their abilities, no matter their level of skill.

      • Anna Kopel says:

        Our daughter loved her classes with Rudy! We also a production of a Shakespeare play many years ago!

    5. Anthony W Campbell says:

      This all sounds great. All for it, but it is still hard to understand how the community and the city allow street sheds to remain up for nearly 20 years with no planned solutions. What is the beauty in that?