What is a church? Is it a building or is it a congregation? Is it a collection of bright red, somewhat cracked sandstone bricks 125 years old or a mission of charity and public works 56 years older? Can both coexist in the hellish world of Manhattan real estate? That is the debate—and occasional argument—that has surrounded the corner of 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side for nearly a decade.
The flashpoint is the 1880s West-Park Presbyterian Church, designed by Leopold Eidlitz and Henry Kilburn, which was designated a New York City landmark on last month. Parishioners of the church claim they may have to abandon their century-old home now that they cannot count on a renovation and expansion to help with maintenance and alleviate financial difficulties.
Preservationists, neighbors, and local politicians counter that it is arguably the finest Romanesque Revival church in the city, and point to the church’s longstanding refusal to be landmarked—dating back to the creation of the Upper West Side Historic District in 1990—as the real problem.
In 2003, two years after a devastating storm revealed signs of serious deterioration in the building’s sandstone facade, the church, through a connected patron, contacted Related Companies for help. The developer proposed demolishing the church and replacing it with a boxy glass tower and crystalline modernist chapel designed by Franke, Gottsegen, Cox Architects.
Neighbors, including a newly formed group Friends of West-Park, cried foul. The group’s founder Thomas Vitullo-Martin still questions the church’s motives, telling AN recently, “This has nothing to do with the stones, which are in pretty good shape. This is all about money.”
Related abandoned the project over public outcry, but the church continued to work with Friends of West-Park on an alternative. The group proposed a Tate Modern-style addition that would keep the facade but replace much of the church with a school or other public facilities, though a chapel and church offices would remain. The plans were devised by architect Peter Samton of Gruzen Samton and preservationist Page Cowley (both locals). It ultimately faltered because the New York City Presbytery argued it would not generate a sustaining income.
The church then turned to another developer, Richmond, who proposed a plan to retain 85 percent of the building while demolishing the offices in back, replacing them with a residential tower. Despite including a number of affordable housing units, the tower angered the community not only for its height but also because it would replace the original parish house.
“It is and has always been our desire to rebuild, restore, and renew what was given to us by our forebears,” said Reverend Robert Brashear of West-Park in an interview. “At the same time, the building is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.”
All the while, the Landmarks Preservation Commission was flooded with petitions and thousands of letters, as a spokesperson confirmed, begging it to take up the matter. The church was calendared for review last February—at which point Richmond walked away—after a burst pipe raised fears about its continued maintenance. The church was designated by a unanimous vote on January 12 following contentious hearings over the summer.
Stephen Byrnes, who joined the commission five years ago, said landmarking the church was at the top of his wish list since Day One. While he hopes the commission can help find a way to preserve the church, Byrnes acknowledged that it may not now be able to raise the money it needs for restoration, at least not without selling the property. “We know that, but that’s not under our purview,” Byrnes said. “We’re looking at this in terms of its architecture and its significance to the city, and that’s our responsibility.”
Brashear’s frustration is clear—he booed the vote—though he said “a non-profit educational institution in the community” was still considering a deal for the building. “We will do everything in our power to renew our own life through this building,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in AN 02_02.03.2010.