By Carol Tannenhauser
There are three churches involved in this story. One is a building. One is the congregation that worships there. One is the body that governs the congregation and about 90 others throughout New York City: The Church. The denomination involved is Presbyterian. The governing body is called the Presbytery.
The building involved is breathtaking; it sits like an uncut ruby amid tall, beige, rectangular boxes, on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and West 86th Street, a central intersection on the Upper West Side.
The congregation numbers 12 — laughable unless you know its history. It was told to us by Zachery Tomlinson, artistic director of the Center at West Park, a nonprofit performing arts center that has been operating out of the building since 2010.
It’s very important to note that West Park Presbyterian Church was an important institution in responding to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, and was majorly involved in gay rights activism and providing social services to people with HIV and AIDS. It was actually the place where God’s Love We Deliver, the organization that now provides meals to 10,000 people every week, had their first commercial kitchen in the 1980s. The congregation was decimated by people dying of AIDS. There was this massive loss of life, very tragically, and that, in part, set up the situation.
Built in the 1880s, the church is as architecturally important as it is socially. Here is what the Landmarks Preservation Commission wrote when it declared the building a NYC landmark in 2010.
The West Park Presbyterian Church is considered to be one of the best examples of a Romanesque Revival style religious structure in New York City. The extraordinarily deep color of its red sandstone cladding and the church’s bold forms with broad, round-arched openings and a soaring tower at the corner of West 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue produce a monumental and distinguished presence along those streets.
Unfortunately, even before it was declared a landmark by the LPC, it had been declared “unsafe” by the DOB (Buildings). Zachery Tomlinson picks up his story:
Around 2001, the congregation noticed that there were some very small particles flaking off the red sandstone façade of the building, and turning the snow reddish. That meant the façade was not secure, and, by requirement of the city, they had to put up a sidewalk shed to protect people below, in case anything larger fell.”
Roger Leaf, chair of the West Park Presbyterian Church’s Administrative Commission, told West Side Rag, “It almost bankrupted the church trying to keep up with the almost endless list of repairs.” When he says “the church,” he means the congregation. “The sidewalk shed went up around the building over 20 years ago. It’s still up today and there is no prospect at this stage of taking it down unless we can spend something like $20 million on the restoration of the facade.”
Now, they have other options. A company called Alchemy Properties has offered to buy the church provided it’s demolished. The price is $33 million, Leaf said, plus another $8.8 million to build out the 10,000 square-foot space they would be provided in the 19-story residential condominium Alchemy hopes to build.
“In addition, there would be funds received from the sale of the property that would create an endowment for the church that would allow them to hire a new minister and reinvigorate some of the community programs that they’ve run over the years. The balance of the sale proceeds would be gifted to the Presbytery of New York City in support of its mission.”
There’s one major obstacle to the plan: the building’s landmark designation. There is, however, a “hardship provision” in the Landmark Law that allows an owner to apply to ‘de-landmark’ a building if they can no longer sustain it. Leaf and his attorney applied to do so on Tuesday.
“If we don’t get the hardship, we’ll have to try to sell the building to whoever will take it off our hands. It’s one of those buildings though. It’s a little like a car that’s been in a wreck. You know, if the cost of repairs is more than what the car would be worth after it’s repaired, it’s totaled. In this case, we have a church, a building that the cost of the repairs exceeds what the fair market value of the building would be after the repairs. So it’s a little like the building has been totaled.”
Susan E. Sullivan, president of the West 80s Neighborhood Association and a Board Member of the Center at West Park, contested Leaf’s claim in an email to West Side Rag.
Thanks to the support of our community, West Park is in better working condition today than the day it was officially landmarked. However, it is a fact that the exterior condition of West Park has been neglected by the Presbytery for the past 30 years. It is inexcusable that the Presbytery has allowed the building’s exterior to even further degrade since its landmark designation. That neglect attests to the Presbytery’s gross dereliction of duty to maintain a NYC landmarked building under its ownership. It is foolhardy to believe that the Presbytery, as a billion dollar world-wide enterprise, does not have the resources to maintain and improve West Park.”
*** Update: Following publication, the West-Park Presbyterian Church objected strenuously to Sullivan’s statements.
“The building is owned by the West-Park Presbyterian Church, which is nearly bankrupt, not the Presbytery of New York City. The Presbytery of New York City is not a ‘billion-dollar worldwide enterprise’ — it has an annual budget of less than $100,000 to help all of its 89 member churches pay for repairs. The totality of the Presbytery of New York’s unrestricted assets would not even be sufficient to pay for repairs to the building’s façade alone, which today would cost $17.9 million. The baseline restoration of the entire building would require at least $50 million and will only grow larger over time.”
So far in 2022, the congregation has had to pay over $75,000 on emergency repairs to prevent [the building’s] south wall from collapsing onto 86th Street. [They borrowed the money from the Presbytery, Leaf said.] As recently as January, the church had to be closed for three months because of building-condition issues, the spokesperson said.
Sullivan said the Center has “offered to buy West Park from the Presbytery and take on the capital improvements required. Second, we have requested the Presbytery to honor our right to renew our 5-year lease as stipulated in our lease contract,” she said. “We have acted in good faith and conducted our interaction with the Presbytery with complete transparency, recognizing that it will take time to raise the money to actualize our vision of West Park.
“Over the past 5 years [we have] built a vigorous performing arts center servicing the entire UWS community and beyond,” she added. “Since 2017 we’ve provided 100 artist residencies serving over 600 individual artists, as well as over 10,000 hours of affordable performance and rehearsal rental space.”
That has not translated into money for the restoration, according to a spokesperson for the congregation. “In total, less than 2% of the necessary funds have been raised by the community to date, including $135,000 raised by the Center at West Park between 2017 and 2019, nowhere near the amount needed to address even just the façade repairs.”
***“The Center at West Park unequivocally rejects [the congregation’s] explanation,” Susan Sullivan responded. “In 2011, Friends of West Park and elected officials committed to raise funds to ensure that West Park would be the iconic landmark that it is, situated on the crossroads of the Upper West Side with a long and storied social-activism history.
“The Center at West Park has actively undertaken that challenge by forming a vibrant performing arts center, where every penny of our profit has been dedicated to improving the infrastructure of West Park. The Center at West Park was formed in January of 2014 (not a 501c3 until several years later) while a group of us sat in the frigid church sanctuary. There was no heat and the temperature was less than 28 degrees. It was freezing. The Presbytery had failed to repair its boiler and failed to repair a burst pipe. They were allowing the church to become derelict. Honestly, it was a herculean effort to pull support together to form the Center.”
The LPC is not the only hurdle to de-landmarking West Park Presbyterian Church, the building. Before the decision, which Leaf said should come in late June, the application must have a public hearing and get an approving nod from Community Board 7. There will be a CB7 committee meeting on May 12, Leaf said, then, the full board will meet on June 1st.
We’ll keep you posted.