Since the late 19th century, the West Park Presbyterian Church on Manhattan's Upper West Side has served as a base for New York City activism and community service, where congregants and community members have taken up causes ranging from fighting anti-Chinese immigrant bigotry and advancing civil rights, to feeding people during the AIDS crisis.
That thread through history could soon end, at least for the venerable building, built in 1890. A plan proposed by church officials and a real estate developer would see the red sandstone structure, once described as “one of the best examples of a Romanesque Revival style religious structure in New York City,” face the wrecking ball – that is, if a city panel agrees to undo the building’s landmark status.
Under a pending application proposed by West Park Presbyterian’s governing body, the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission would declare the crumbling, scaffold-garnished building at 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue a “hardship” case, relieving the church of the obligation to preserve the building, at an estimated cost of as much as $50 million, including $17 million to repair the crumbling facade alone.
Essentially what's happened is that the congregation of the West Park Presbyterian Church has in fact run out of money by attempting to keep up this landmark building.
After demolition, the site would give way to mixed-use development, with high-rise residences and 10,000 square feet of space for a new church, including a 150-seat auditorium for religious and arts programming. In recent years, the building has been better known as a performance and cultural space, from hosting musical and dance productions to “open mic” nights.
“Essentially what's happened is that the congregation of the West Park Presbyterian Church has in fact run out of money by attempting to keep up this landmark building,” said Roger Leaf, a trustee of the Presbytery of New York City, who serves as chair of the West Park Administrative Commission, the governing body of the church.
The turn of events comes just 12 years after the Landmarks Preservation Commission deemed West Park Presbyterian worthy of protection and would mark a rare reversal for the city-run panel. The commission received just 19 hardship applications over the last 57 years and granted approval to just 13 of them, with four rejections, and two applications not acted upon, according to the commission.
The church’s circumstances highlight the challenges of preserving significant architectural remnants of the city’s past when there are no firm commitments to pay the significant repair and maintenance bills that can come with historical preservation. The scaffolding surrounding the church for more than a decade hasn't been to effect repairs or renovations; it protects passersby from being struck by falling building material.
Standing in the way of West Park Presbyterian’s demolition is a coalition of elected officials, impassioned community residents and performing arts groups, including the Center at West Park, a nonprofit that has served as the prime tenant and manager of the building for the past five years. It is mounting a public campaign to preserve the church, fund repairs, and keep the developers at bay – without yet identifying any funding sources.
In 2021, Center at West Park offered to buy the building, wrote Zachary Tomlinson, the group's artistic director, in an email, “and we are still open to buying the building so that it can be preserved. Our offer to buy the building included taking on full responsibility for preserving the facade and reserving space for WPPC (West-Park Presbyterian Church) to continue services and programs in the building.”
We just think it's terrible to tear it down and let it become just another high-rise.
Marian Warden, the chair of Center at West Park’s board of trustees, said, “We just think it's terrible to tear it down and let it become just another high-rise.” Besides, she contends, the cost of repairing the building is “more like something” between $15 million and $20 million. She calls the church officials’ estimate of a $50 million repair tab “an exaggerated figure.”
Progressive causes and art
West Park’s reputation as a center of progressive and, at the time, radical causes goes back to its earliest years.
Before the turn of the 19th century, the church “promoted ethnic inclusion,” according to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, “inviting Chinese congregants to worship at the church at the peak of anti-Chinese hysteria.” In later eras, it was “at the forefront of civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, and anti-nuclear movements.”
And in the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, a kitchen in the property at Amsterdam Avenue and 86th Street became the birthplace of the organization God’s Love We Deliver, now located at 166 Avenue of the Americas. It has served more than 26 million meals to New Yorkers coping with illness.
In recent times, however, the congregation has dwindled to all of 12 worshipers, and since the pandemic began in 2020 they have only met virtually. Meanwhile, arts groups – including Russian Arts Theater and Studio, Noche Flamenca and The Seeing Place Theater – have continued to operate out of the building and put on performances for the public.
On a recent weekday at the church, administrators at the Center at West Park watched as an artist prepared on stage for an upcoming show, ColorSynth. The artist, lighting designer Nicholas Houfek, sat before his laptop, as a Bach cello suite came out of the little speakers.
In the evening, Houfek said, he would be joined for a rehearsal by two musicians, Phong Tran on electronics and Brendon Randall-Myers, a guitarist. Instead of recorded Bach, their live notes would be fed through the software he had developed.
“It finds a frequency,” said Houfek, “and it converts that frequency through a series of algorithms for red, green and blue that then combines into the lights” that would dance off the walls and the ceilings of the cavernous church interior, as well as the large stained glass window that memorialized the death of a former congregant from AIDS.
Elsewhere in the church hung a poster for a stage adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, presented by another arts tenant, the Russian Theater. The show, opening May 12th, is being promoted as “a theater soirée to raise funds for humanitarian aid in Ukraine.”
Natasha Katerinopoulos, the managing director of the Center at West Park, said the organization’s programming was thriving in the face of the pandemic and “our budget is actually looking pretty good.”
“There are many organizations for the arts that were bigger than us that are doing way worse,” Katerinopoulos said. “It's very sad that we were able to push through and are in a position to potentially have to close because our landlord wants to displace an active community for 12 congregants that have no place to worship.”
The protection afforded by Landmarking was thought to have ensured a continued engagement.
‘Romanesque Revival style’
The building was landmarked in 2010, with support from numerous public officials, including Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, then-Councilmember Bill de Blasio, representatives of then-Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, and then-Councilmember Gale Brewer, who continues to represent the district as a councilmember, following an intervening stint as Manhattan borough president. They were joined by the Victorian Society, the Municipal Arts Society and the Historic Districts Council.
“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,” said the Landmarks Preservation Commission at the time. “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.”
But landmark status was opposed by the pastor at the time, the Rev. Robert Brashear, and a small number of other clergy.
“Landmarking was approved basically because Gale [Brewer] was able to convince the other commissioners that there would be sufficient money raised within the community,” said Brashear, who has since retired. “And because they believed that that kind of money would be raised, they voted to support landmarking, and that level of money never really came from the community over the intervening years.”
In her 2009 testimony before the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Brewer said, “I will work to raise the necessary funds to restore the building.”
Today, she acknowledges, “the church is in worse shape than we thought.”
But she said a big part of the challenge has been raising funds for a church, which is precluded from receiving taxpayer support, though that fact was certainly known in 2009.
“There's no opportunity for me or for any elected official or any government to give money to a church” for repairs, Brewer said.
‘A terrible burden’
The Rev. N. J. L’Heureux Jr., the retired executive director of the Queens Federation of Churches, had also opposed the landmarking.
“People regard landmarking as an honor,” L’Heureux said in a recent interview. “They don't realize that it is a terrible burden for the owner of the building.”
In 1982, L’Heureux oversaw the publication of a report by The Committee of Religious Leaders of the City of New York that was highly critical of landmarking.
“Synagogues and Churches, in seeking to address mounting needs in every local community, have come to find themselves increasingly confronted by the Landmarks Preservation Commission,” read the report. “At best, this has resulted in significant delay and increased the cost of proposed renovation and development programs.”
And at worst, the report continued, the designation, by preventing redevelopment, “drains off valuable resources which otherwise would be redeployed for more effective ministry.” Such demands “may cause a severe interference with its spiritual and social purposes.”
In the last seven years, the church said it has spent approximately $1 million on repairs to its facade. Since 2000, a protective “sidewalk bridge” or scaffolding has been in place to protect pedestrians from falling chunks of the building, a problem that church officials expect to grow worse. To keep up with costs, church officials have sold off assets, including a manse or residence on West 93rd Street used for a former minister, which brought in $1.35 million.
The community's got to figure out what they do with a building that they seem to love, but don't want to support.
In a statement, Zodet Negron, a spokesperson for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, wrote, “LPC has always been sensitive to the cost and effort of maintaining historic buildings, and we work closely with owners to find solutions that are realistic and achievable. The Landmarks Law contains a hardship provision for when an owner asserts they cannot sustain the landmark under the law, and that is the case here. West Park Presbyterian has submitted a hardship application, which is currently under review and will go through a robust public process.”
On May 5th, the advisory Manhattan Community Board 7’s Preservation Committee will hold a public hearing to discuss the church’s hardship application, which if approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission would relieve the church of its landmarking requirements and facilitate sale to a developer, and likely demolition.
West Park has said it has already entered into a contract with developer Alchemy Properties, where a spokesperson declined a Gothamist request for comment. In 2018, the church rejected a $2 million purchase offer by the Center at West Park, deeming the proposal insufficient to address the needed repairs and overly restrictive of future development. Further, church leaders said, the Center group failed to demonstrate it could raise the money.
Councilmember Brewer, meanwhile, said she supports Center at West Park’s campaign to take over the church property, effectively severing the building's ties to the religious organization. She said such a move would then allow city government to help pay for renovations, and help attract other donors as well.
“I can't tell you how many people have said, ‘I'd give money to the nonprofit but I'm not going to give money to a church,’ because they think that the nonprofit and the arts center is an asset to the community,” said Brewer.
She opposes the church’s hardship application.
“It would be devastating, devastating to have this building torn down.”
Said the Rev. Brashear, pastor emeritus at West Park: “The community's got to figure out what they do with a building that they seem to love, but don't want to support.”
A previous version of this story misspelled Gale Brewer's first name. It has been updated.