Mar 20, 2010

Love Thy Neighbour: the Sad Tale of the West Park Presbyterian Church

The bright blue plywood roof of a pedestrian protection corridor wraps around the massive red sandstone walls of the West Park Presbyterian church at 86th street, clearly marking it as a construction site. “For Sale” signs on the plywood list the numbers of real estate agents, but you may be sure their phones aren’t ringing off the hook. Under the dark shadows of the pedestrian corridor, the notice board carries only one sign: Services are now being held two blocks west, at the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew.

This was the sorry state of affairs at West Park Presbyterian even before the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) officially designated it a historical landmark in January 2010. Designed by Leopold Eidlitz and Henry Kilburn in a Romanesque Revival style and completed in 1889, this gabled church, with its rose windows and high tower, richly deserves the designation. It was a landmark in its time, with a wealthy Upper West Side congregation. However, that congregation steadily dwindled, putting the church in financial straits and causing the building to fall into disrepair.

Since 2003, the church’s pastor, Rev. Dr. Robert L. Brasher, has been desperately trying to revive the church’s fortunes. The first suggestion – to replace the building entirely with a luxury condo tower and a modernist chapel – was met with an outcry by the community group Friends of West-Park. The church officials then worked with the community group to come up with a second option, which ultimately proved financially unviable. A third proposal - to retain most of the structure, but to sacrifice the chapel for a residential tower - was seen by irate members of the community as an attempt to mutilate their beautiful neighborhood icon for monetary gain. All this wrangling soured the relations between the church and the community groups, and any joint effort to find a solution was derailed by petty bickering.
In 2008, neighbors’ complaints forced the church to turn away homeless people seeking refuge, for the first time in its history. Later that year, the neighbors espied construction workers coming out of the empty building. Fearing that church officials were sneakily undertaking demolition, the community group raised an alarm with the LPC and precipitated the landmark designation. Church officials remained bitterly opposed: the architecture of a church is so tailored to its religious function that a landmarked church would attract few investors. And they hardly had the money to repair and maintain the building themselves.

But West Park Presbyterian might be overlooking a role model that is just down the road: the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew. Besides providing a new home for the Presbyterian congregation, this equally historic church hosts its own services, and those of the Jewish B’nai Jeshurun community. It also runs a food-for-the-homeless program, and earns revenue by renting out a performance space on its second floor. It has stayed out of the red by transforming into a multi-purpose cultural space.

This might be West Park Presbyterian’s way out of the impasse which, though caused by the LPC’s decision, is ultimately a product of the distrust between the church and its neighbors. The funds for immediate repairs to the building could come through the LPC’s “hardship” process: a provision that bails out landmarked buildings which need expensive restoration. Then the challenge will be to become financially self-sufficient. In this regard, the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew might show it how to be “all things to all men”: a home for its congregation, a social and cultural force for the community, and a living, functioning, historical landmark for its city.
This piece was written as part of Justin Davidson's Criticism Lab.

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