FXCollaborative’s UWS Children’s Museum conversion sparks preservation fears

Hallowed Halls

FXCollaborative’s UWS Children’s Museum conversion sparks preservation fears

361 Central Park West could still soon become the new home of the Children’s Museum of Manhattan. (Courtesy FXCollaborative/CMOM)

A year-and-a-half after the news broke that FXCollaborative would be converting Manhattan’s derelict First Church of Christ Scientist on West 96th Street into the new home of the Children’s Museum of Manhattan (CMOM), the project has gone before the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to mixed reviews.

Diagram showing a flow diagram through a converted church
A cross-section details FXCollaborative’s scope of work, including below-ground excavation. (Courtesy FXCollaborative/CMOM)

The Beaux-Arts-reminiscent church was originally completed in 1903 by Carrère & Hastings, and befitting its pedigree, was landmarked by the city in 1974. However, due to the rapid decline of Christian Science, the building was sold to Crenshaw Christian Church in 2004, then again to a residential developer in 2014. The building was decommissioned as the First Church of Christ Scientist when the original congregation left and merged with the city’s Second Church, in the process turning that location into the new First Church of Christ Scientist (yes, it’s confusing). After several failed attempts to convert the building into high-end condos, the developer unloaded the property to CMOM in 2018.

Sketch of a church hall suspending animal shapes
A sketch shows how the church’s landmarked interior arches could be used to host fun, kid-friendly installations. (Courtesy FXCollaborative/CMOM)

Now FXCollaborative’s plans for 361 Central Park West have been unveiled. At an LPC meeting this Tuesday, March 3, the museum presented their reworked vision for the building.

Diagram of a Beaux-Arts styled church
The street-facing facade will be made more accessible, and the stained glass windows replaced with bird-safe glass. (Courtesy FXCollaborative/CMOM)

That includes removing the former church’s stained glass windows and replacing them with clear, bird-safe glass, excavating below the building for a new cellar and sub-cellar area, inserting a new workshop and performance space at the top of the building, improving handicap accessibility, and a suite of quality-of-life improvements. One of the design team’s guiding principles was to better connect the museum to Central Park across the street, which the new windows and lowered entrances should help with. The full proposal can be found on the LPC’s website. Of note is that much of the exterior will be seemingly unchanged apart from the new rooftop area, including a refusal to route lighting through any of the existing exterior stone.

Cutaway diagram of a church space
A new workshop and performance space and outdoor terraces would be visible from street level. (Courtesy FXCollaborative/CMOM)
Exterior photo of the First Church of Christ Scientist with new terraces
Proposed street-level view of the church from West 96th Street. (Courtesy FXCollaborative/CMOM)

However, the rooftop addition and removal of the building’s historic stained glass is causing the most consternation among preservationists. The Society for the Architecture of the City, former congregation members, and nearby residents expressed concern over the changes, as the addition would be visible from the street and the original windows were part of the building’s original designation. If the project moves ahead, the windows would be sent to St. Louis’s National Building Arts Center for conservation.

A number of big names also tendered support for the conversion, including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who spoke in person, and Deborah Berke, who submitted a letter of support.

Ultimately the commission was mixed on the changes and raised the same concerns mentioned previously. The project was sent back for revisions and will be brought before the LPC again sometime in the near future. If everything goes smoothly, the museum’s new home is anticipated to open in 2023.