I. “Allow the Old Church to be Replaced With a New Building”
By Sheldon Fine
I have been an advocate for landmark preservation for decades. Locally, I have worked to preserve The Marseilles and the Euclid Hall, which are part of the West Side’s rich cultural and architectural history. I was also a strong advocate for the successful designation of the Manhattan Avenue Historic District.
But, in 2010, I did not support granting landmark status to West-Park Presbyterian Church (I submitted testimony to the city’s landmarks commission opposing the proposal), and I now urge the commission to remove that status and allow the old church to be replaced with a new building – one that would include space for both the church’s congregation and the cultural and community organizations that use the space.
Why allow the demise of an architectural fixture with a long history? First, I have always found the attempt to landmark religious institutions objectionable, on the grounds that it is an intrusion of the state into religion. Religious institutions exist first for their religious mission.
Secondly, the viability of the building’s structure is crucial for the safety of its congregants and others that use the space – as well as for those who pass by on the street (West-Park’s façade has been hidden behind a sidewalk shed for 20 years to ensure no crumbling pieces of the exterior fall on pedestrians). Only after these two concerns are met should the architectural and cultural significance of the building be considered.
When I opposed the landmarking of West-Park twelve years ago, I was familiar with the church from the activity of the West Side Ecumenical Ministry for the Elderly, which once had its home there. The Church was always strong in its mission and a leader in many movements advocating for social justice. But I was convinced that given the physical condition and the lack of funds available to make necessary repairs that granting landmark status would become a financial burden and restrict the church’s ability to continue effectively carrying out its mission.
My view did not prevail. Landmark status was granted, amid offers from community groups and individuals to help the church survive. But following landmarking, for the most part, the funding these groups and individuals promised did not materialize. Consequently, the building continued to deteriorate, and the unattractive sidewalk shed has had to remain up to protect passersby from harm.
Now, 12 years later, the façade remains a physical threat to pedestrians, the interior is is not a safe environment for congregants, and nothing has changed to improve the church’s ability to advance its mission within the community.
Facing an uncertain path forward after spending all of its resources to maintain the building, the West-Park Presbyterian Church’s leadership voted in 2020 to sell the property. The sale – which is contingent on removing the church’s landmark status so that it can be replaced with a new building — would provide the congregation with new resources. It would allow the church to thrive once again and secure a new space for worship. It could also provide new space for the arts programs and community activities that have used the church interior.
Questions have been raised about the church’s estimate that repairs and restoration of the building, as landmarked, would run into the tens of millions of dollars. Even if the cost is less than the church’s estimate, it is still well beyond the reach of the church. And those who advocated for landmark status 12 years ago did not come through with funds to make essential repairs. Meanwhile, the building has only deteriorated further, adding to the cost – and with no concrete plan in evidence for how to finance the repairs and restoration. If advocates of saving the building couldn’t come up with the money to do so 12 years ago, why would we think they will this time?
Some may argue that landmark preservation is such a vital public interest that it exceeds all other considerations. But it’s foolish to think that after all these years of neglect, the funds will ever be raised to repair, renovate, restore, and ensure the physical viability of the church. After the failed 12-year experiment with landmark status, it is time for the Landmarks Preservation Commission to approve the West-Park Presbyterian Church’s application, to remove its landmark status.
II. “A Way Forward for West-Park Presbyterian Church”
By David Westphal and Geneva Overholser
In 2004, the New York Landmarks Conservancy began surveying the city’s places of worship, trying to identify historically important churches, synagogues and mosques. A decade later, the conservancy had identified 1,200 religious buildings, and it pinpointed several that were believed to be particularly vulnerable to demolition.
Among them were Boerum Hill’s Church of the Redeemer, the Church of Our Lady of Vilnius in Tribeca and Washington Heights’ Wadsworth Avenue Baptist Church. The Landmarks Conservancy was prescient. Today all three are gone, victims of neglect and pressure from development interests.
They are part of a decades-old demolition story in New York of neglected churches and synagogues. Much of this is inevitable, and it quite possibly will accelerate as religious participation continues to decline in the United States.
But it needn’t always happen. And it shouldn’t happen at West-Park Presbyterian Church on the Upper West Side.
The church has proposed shedding its 2010 landmarks designation so that it can sell the 132-year-old building to Alchemy Properties, a development company, for $30 million. Alchemy would raze the church and build a 19-story luxury apartment at the site.
We believe this would be a terrible mistake. So does the Center at West Park, the nonprofit created in 2016 to manage the building as a performing arts center, as well as a continuing home for the Presbyterian congregation. More recently, the Lighthouse Chapel, a vibrant West African congregation, has worshiped there. We have been thrilled to attend some of the hundreds of music, dance and theater performances at the church, and look forward to the fall Evolution Festival, which will feature six works-in-progress by New York City artists.
The center’s work has not only made West-Park an important arts institution on the Upper West Side, but it has led the way in preserving this remarkable building.
When we bought our apartment 20 years ago, the presence of the Belnord across the street and of this church next door (not to mention Barney Greengrass in the building) was a huge part of the allure. Our AIA guide to the city calls West-Park “one of the West Side’s loveliest landmarks.”
It is an architectural treasure, one of only a few Romanesque Revival churches in the city. Its deep red sandstone glows in sunlight; we find it especially beautiful draped in new snow. It’s also a powerful connector to history, built at a time when the Upper West Side was just beginning to develop and steam locomotives plied the streets.
On Tuesday, July 19, the Landmarks Preservation Commission will continue its discussion of the church’s petition to de-landmark the building. The petition should be rejected. Why? Because there is a viable plan that would save the building from demolition and preserve it as a center for artistic, cultural and spiritual life on the Upper West Side.
The church argues that it can no longer maintain the building because necessary repairs would require a $50 million investment that its congregation, of just a handful of members, could not sustain. It further maintains that there is no realistic alternative that could lead to a real future for the building. As a result, the church says, the commission should de-landmark the building under a hardship provision, clearing the way for demolition.
It turns out, though, that there is an alternative. Engineers hired by the center concluded that the building is structurally sound and that the church has overstated the required renovation work. Further, supporters of the center have made a $3.5 million offer to buy the church, a proposal that would remove the central rationale of the church’s de-listing petition – that it can no longer maintain the landmarked building.
For the de-listing to succeed, the Landmarks Preservation Commission would have to conclude that there is little to no hope that the Center at West Park or anyone else could preserve the church. And that simply isn’t the case. The center’s six-year record of establishing a flourishing arts program, the $3.5 million purchase offer and the evident and robust community support for maintaining the church suggests that West-Park can have many good years ahead.
In 2020, Americans’ membership in houses of worship dropped below 50 percent for the first time.The resulting loss of members’ financial support has left religious institutions hurting for resources. For the New York City Presbytery, the $30 million offered by developers must seem an astonishing boon; surely many other denominations would feel the same. But if destroying the city’s architectural heritage becomes the new funding model for struggling religious institutions, just think what irretrievable losses our city will suffer.
Religious buildings such as this one grace streetscapes throughout the city. When one of them falls to the wrecking ball to be replaced (in this proposal) by another luxury housing building, a piece of the city’s heart goes with it.
Sometimes there is another way. If neighborhoods and city officials and religious organizations join forces, some of these churches and synagogues and mosques will be saved. New York would be a great laboratory for such collaboration.
West-Park opens that opportunity.