Tenant of historic church fights to keep it alive
A local nonprofit is fighting to save the West-Park Presbyterian Church on 86th and Amsterdam, which we recently learned could be razed to make way for an apartment building.
The Center at West Park, a performing arts group based in the historic building, is asking for help to preserve the iconic Romanesque-style church it has called home for the past five years. The church seeks its own demolition.
Labeled by the Landmarks Preservation Commission as “one of the best examples of a Romanesque Revival religious structure in New York City”, West Park Presbyterian Church has deep roots on the Upper West Side and throughout the city. It was founded in 1852 as the 84th Street Presbyterian Church and was located on 11th Avenue (now West End Avenue). It was the first Presbyterian congregation on the Upper West Side, 15 members strong.
In the 1880s, the congregation grew and consequently outgrew its wooden chapel built in 1854 by architect Leopold Eidlitz. The church purchased five lots on the northeast corner of 86th and 10th Avenue West (present-day Amsterdam Avenue) in 1883 and engaged Eidlitz “to plan a brick chapel in the Victorian Gothic style at the east end of the site. The building was completed in 1885. The west end of the lot was left open for future church expansion.
Architect Henry Kilburn was hired by the New Park Presbyterian Church in 1889 to develop the west lots for a larger main church and to incorporate the design of the Eidlitz Chapel. The first stone was laid on May 16, 1889 after construction had started about a month earlier. The church opened on May 18, 1890.
“West-Park Presbyterian Church was formed in 1911 when Park Presbyterian Church merged with West Presbyterian Church, which was founded in 1829 in Greenwich Village and later moved to 42nd Street. Kilburn’s design remains intact and [the] The building retains its visual prominence on the Upper West Side.
The current struggle
The total congregation today is 12, and maintaining the church is not economically feasible for her. “The Church nearly went bankrupt due to its deteriorating ownership of the building, spending well over a million dollars of its limited budget over the past decade and using loans from the New York Rectory to meet the emergency repairs,” a West-Park Presbyterian spokesperson said. says ILTUWS.
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The church plans to apply for a hardship exemption from the Landmarks Preservation Commission on May 5 before appearing before Community Council 7 on June 1; this hardship exemption would reverse its historic designation and allow demolition of the church to begin.
Faced with the dissolution of its 12 congregants and the possibility of having to sell the church “as is” with the historic status intact, the congregation feels it has no choice but to plan the demolition with Alchemy Properties.
“The congregation needs a new plan to survive,” explained the spokesperson, who added that various experts were consulted to “evaluate different scenarios and determine whether they would provide a reasonable return after the renovation and restoration. of the building”. But “such a scenario does not exist”.
A mixed-use building would rise in place of the 133-year-old structure, and the congregation would have 10,000 square feet of raw space to build as they see fit. But the future is uncertain for its main tenant, The Center at West Park (CWP), even with the approval of a proof.
“We would be without space and would have to completely reinvent. It is very difficult to find spaces for artists in the city,” said Zachary Tomlinson, artistic director of CWP, noting that most of his income comes from ticket sales and space rental for various events. and cultural endeavors.
These events and efforts have made the West 86th Street location a bustling place for the arts, in fact thriving. The space hosts around 100 different events throughout the year, has an artist-in-residence almost weekly, and is home to the Broadway Bound Kids Summer Camp. CWP also rents the space to another Christian congregation on Sundays, noting that West-Park Presbyterian has not held an in-person service in more than two years and its only activity on the site is an open mic night on Fridays.
West-Park attributes its limited in-person attendance to “ongoing unsafe building conditions at the church and recent concerns related to the COVID pandemic [which] led the congregation to rely on virtual meetings for services and Bible study.
Tomlinson acknowledged that its owner, West-Park Presbyterian, does not have the financial resources to maintain the property long-term – but added that the church did not have them until the building was branded in 2010, and this deficit is the reason the West Park Center was founded.
“The Center was started because there wasn’t enough of a congregation,” Tomlinson said. This was a long-term partnership, a joint effort with the local community and congregation to fill a void in the neighborhood and eventually raise enough money to restore the building.
The CWP remains committed to this agreement and says it bears the fiscal responsibilities of the church. “We pay modest rent, but we also invest a lot of money in the property,” Tomlinson said. He says this includes paying for regular maintenance, cleaning, repairs, utilities, as well as electrical and boiler repairs and ongoing projects for fire safety and evacuations. He also tells us that CWP replaced the roof of the community house (along with the church) and a failed staircase.
The original 2017 deal between CWP and West Park Presbyterian was for one year. CWP then signed a five-year lease with the right to renew. CWP tried to exercise that right but the church challenged it, according to Tomlinson, leaving the cultural center worried about what the future holds for its patrons and artists who have come to rely on it.
Tomlinson says it’s more than worry; it’s frustrating as he claims CWP would be able to financially support the property for the next five-year lease term and likely beyond.
West-Park Presbyterian disagrees and says CWP failed to pay for major repairs and breached its lease. “The Center has not demonstrated its ability both to fulfill its current obligations to the Church and to raise the funds that would be needed to restore the building. Expert analysis of building conditions estimates a need of $50 million to fully restore immediate interior and exterior needs, and does not include ongoing maintenance.
CWP is aware that a full restoration is not in the cards immediately. But the CWP said it had launched a fundraising campaign to make it happen. Tomlinson estimates the total price at $20-25 million, compared to West-Park’s estimate of $50 million. The sandstone facade needs to be restored. “It’s the biggest project.” The stone wears and crumbles into pieces of dust or sand. The roof over the sanctuary is the other major project.