Like many 19th-century factories, stables and warehouses, West Park Presbyterian Church overshot its mark – always an expensive situation. A dozen remaining worshipers (and no pastors) don’t really need their neo-Romanesque church and parish house with a tall steeple at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and West 86th Street. In fact, the once lush architecture relies heavily on the spirits it should lift. Its sandstone exterior, an earthy red deep like a Colorado canyon, wears a mantle of soot and throws chunks of masonry over a virtually permanent sidewalk bridge that houses a homeless encampment. Across New York, places of worship suffer from various forms of neglect, as communities migrate, merge, decline, disperse, regroup and merge, while the edifices they built persist as a testament to ancient settlements. or temporary prosperity. The result is an excess of sacred real estate at a time when the secular genre is scarce.
The obvious remedy is to turn places of worship into homes for people. The last of the congregation has therefore struck a deal with developer Alchemy that promises to turn the condo’s lead into gold. Get rid of the useless relic, install beautiful new apartments and reward the remaining Presbyterians with an intimate new chapel on the premises. If worshipers eventually disperse and no longer need the space, it could easily be converted into a children’s playroom or indoor dog park. There is a catch, however: for the deal to move forward, the Landmarks Preservation Commission would have to lift a 12-year-old designation. protect the structure from these depredations. The potential buyer and seller teamed up and submitted a hardship claim, based on the congregation not having the money to fix their building. Essentially, LPC must consider two paths that branch off only briefly before converging. (1) Raise the historic designation and demolish the church to make way for condos. (2) Let the church decay until it becomes unsafe, the Buildings Department issues a demolition order replacing the historic designation, and it is demolished to make way for condos. The only real question is whether we say goodbye now or soon.
The choices don’t have to be so binary. Brooklyn has several former Houses of God enjoying successful second careers as residences for mortals, including the arches, Southern Congregationand 58 Stronghold. While walking through the South End of Boston, I came across the old Concord Baptist Church, on the corner of Warren Avenue and West Brookline Street, where nine apartments are neatly embedded like three-dimensional puzzle pieces in the neo-Gothic container. A few blocks away, a 1981 fire ravaged the Clarendon Street Baptist Church, leaving only the exterior walls as an envelope for an apartment building inserted into the void. Then, leafing through a monograph published by the New York-based architecture firm DXAI came across his beautiful redesign of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on West 81st Street to include a new sanctuary, classrooms, and a handful of condominium apartments. Intrigued, I reached out to the company to ask if they could see a way to breathe new life into the West 86th Street heritage. It came to three.
West Park Presbyterian, which opened in 1890, epitomizes the late 19th century fascination with adapting European designs to the American metropolitan context, even though their meaning had completely changed. Here the church, the fortress and the palace merge into a work of flamboyant and unnecessary grandeur and force. The tower stands guard around the corner as if guarding a frontier outpost (what the Upper West Side still sort of was in the 1880s), with narrow window slits to protect fictional archers. These eccentricities seem more rational in the context of a growing city, where denominations vied for souls with sculpted facades and high vaults that promised to inspire awe right now and will continue to do so for a very long time. When architecture serves a spiritual purpose, design is not just a marketing extra; it is a form of praise. Ornament is a language, not a flourish. But for a contemporary builder, all those voussoirs, gables, turrets, and rusticated stones demand huge, unnecessary expense — $50 million to fix all the aesthetic and structural issues, according to the generous calculation that accompanies the hardship claim. (DXA’s more conservative estimate puts the cost closer to $18 million, though the precise number is difficult to determine without further spectrographic analysis.) It’s all but taken for granted that such a sumptuously textured, richly colored presence composed of imaginative and downright eccentric way would be replaced by something tasteful. Why care about this strange and abandoned religious structure? Because tearing it down contributes to the creeping homogenization of New York.
DXA’s mandate was to preserve as much as possible (without being fundamentalist in its approach), add apartments, respect the context of the neighborhood, and most importantly, provide a financially viable solution that a well-meaning developer could act upon. The first option the firm explored was a boutique redesign, tucking eight apartments under the existing roof and behind the walls, leaving the double-height sanctuary intact. This might appeal to conservatives, but it produces too few apartments to justify the costs. Such a boutique project also looks precious just across from the Belnord behemoth, across Amsterdam Avenue, on a block lined with the kind of grand square palaces that zoning and history permit.
Alchemy did a similar exercise to support the congregation’s hardship request, preparing several different proposals and reaching an early conclusion: They will never work. But it would be hard to imagine a more superficial effort, designed for summary rejection, than that of Alchemy. One scenario calls for the parish house, built in 1885 as the original sanctuary at the east end of the site, to be demolished and replaced by an unsightly tower that would cantilever over the rest of the complex like a ziggurat at the ‘towards. Unfortunately, according to the developers, this scheme would only result in “small and inefficient floor plans”.
DXA treated the notion of a respectful skyscraper more seriously and in good faith. Its 25 stories spring from a rear corner of the site, rising above the existing roof like a feather in the church’s hat. The hall takes over the parish house, but the facade and most of the rest of the complex remain intact. The Planning Commission would have to grant an exception to the zoning rules, but the reward would be a sleek, chipped and vertically ridged tower in the top corner. It is an elegant and financially attractive proposition that deserves to be refined; the views from the top floor would make brokers salivate. But I suspect that in the end, the steeple and condo tower would always end up looking like mismatched roommates forced to share common ground. Either way, it would be politically unpalatable, as neighborhood groups would surely erect a barricade of objections to bending the rules for another ostentatious pile of luxury throw pillows.
The third iteration develops from the fertile trunk of the old architecture and culminates in the adjoining roof lines. This proposal is a gift for the site, the neighborhood and the architecture of New York. In this hybrid version, the church retains its walls, its bell tower, its sanctuary and, most importantly, its spirit. He sacrifices his roof, but only in exchange for an addition that honors both precedent and imagination. The new design follows the existing skyline but steps away from the street, ceding primacy to the original and treating the steeple as its prominent coat of arms. The gables that give the church its undulating profile anchor faceted walls that slant and undulate, generating a textured surface that captures the shadow from the crevices and bays of the original. Clad in translucent sheets of alabaster-like stone and fritted glass, the newcomer refreshes the red rock luster of the original and gives the entire complex a constant mineral warmth. It also goes beyond the silly debates of most preservation battles and bridges the philosophical gap between additions that mimic the original’s aesthetic or respond to it with unmistakable contrast. The result is more than just a smart conversion; it’s a masterclass in how the style of one era can harmonize with that of a completely different era.
What about money? Even such a thoughtful design will fail if it doesn’t pay off. The design of DXA requires a financial compromise. A new apartment building from scratch on this site could accommodate 101,000 square feet of usable space; The DXA design gives around 77,000, which makes the calculations more complicated and the margins tighter. The high-rise option would be a simpler construction project (but a costly and probably hopeless political battle), give more luxurious views, and bring a more assured return. The lower version is a more innovative project with more squishy math. Even so, that should be enough to keep the congregation in their house, pay for restoration, add a few dozen family homes to the Upper West Side’s supply, and generate income to keep investors happy. With this in mind, the PLC should reject the hardship claim and urge the congregation to pursue a more nuanced and preservation-minded design. Because what does a neighborhood benefit from gaining an entire condo building and losing its soul?