Like plenty of 19th-century factories, stables, and warehouses, West Park Presbyterian Church has outlived its purpose — always an expensive situation. A dozen remaining congregants (and no pastor) don’t really need their neo-Romanesque church–plus–parish house with a lofty bell tower on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and West 86th Street. In fact, the once-luxuriant architecture sits heavily on the spirits it should be lifting. Its sandstone exterior, deep earthy red like a Colorado canyon, wears a mantle of soot and sheds bits of masonry onto a practically permanent sidewalk bridge that shelters a homeless encampment. Houses of worship all over New York are suffering various forms of neglect, as communities migrate, coalesce, decline, disperse, regroup, and merge, as the edifices they built linger as testament to long-ago settlements or passing prosperity. The result is an excess of sacred real estate at a time when the profane kind is in short supply.
The obvious remedy is to turn houses of worship into homes for people. The last of the congregation has accordingly struck a deal with the developer Alchemy that promises to transform leaden weight into condo gold. Scrap the useless relic, put up nice new condos, and reward the remaining Presbyterians with an intimate new chapel on the premises. Should the congregants eventually disperse and no longer need the space, it could easily be converted into a children’s playroom or indoor dog run. There’s one hitch, though: For the deal to go forward, the Landmarks Preservation Commission would have to lift a 12-year-old designation protecting the structure from just such depredations. The would-be buyer and seller have teamed up and submitted a hardship application, predicated on the fact that the congregation doesn’t have the money to fix its building. In essence, LPC must consider two paths that fork only briefly before they converge. (1) Lift the landmark designation and tear the church down to make way for condos. (2) Let the church decay until it becomes unsafe, the Department of Buildings issues a demolition order superseding the landmark designation, and it’s torn down to make way for condos. The only real question is whether we say good-bye now or soon.
The choices don’t have to be so binary. Brooklyn has several former houses of God enjoying prosperous second careers as residences for mortals, including the Arches, South Congregational, and 58 Strong Place. Ambling around Boston’s South End, I came across the old Concord Baptist Church, at the corner of Warren Avenue and West Brookline Street, where nine apartments are neatly inlaid like three-dimensional puzzle pieces into the neo-Gothic container. A few blocks away, a 1981 fire gutted the Clarendon Street Baptist Church, leaving only the exterior walls as a wrapper for an apartment building inserted into the void. Then, leafing through a monograph published by the New York–based architecture firm DXA, I came across its handsome overhaul of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on West 81st Street to include a new sanctuary, classrooms, and a handful of condominium apartments. Intrigued, I got in touch with the firm to ask if it could see a way to give new life to the holdover on West 86th Street. It came up with three.
West Park Presbyterian, which opened in 1890, embodies the late-19th-century fascination with adapting European models to an American metropolitan context, even if their meaning had utterly changed. Here, church, fortress, and palace blend in a work of flamboyantly unnecessary grandeur and brawn. The tower stands guard over the corner as if monitoring some borderlands outpost (which the Upper West Side still sort of was in the 1880s), with narrow window slits to protect fictitious archers. These eccentricities look more rational in the context of a rapidly growing city, where denominations competed for souls with carved façades and lofty vaults that promised to inspire awe right now and keep doing so for a very long time. When architecture serves a spiritual purpose, design is not just a marketing extra; it’s a form of praise. Ornament is a language, not a frill. But to a contemporary builder, all those voussoirs, gables, turrets, and rusticated stones demand huge and pointless expenses—$50 million to take care of all the cosmetic and structural issues, according to the generous calculation that accompanies the hardship application. (DXA’s more conservative estimate puts the cost closer to $18 million, though the precise number is hard to determine without a fresh spectrographic analysis.) It’s practically a given that such a sumptuously textured, richly colored, imaginatively composed, and downright eccentric presence would be replaced by something tastefully plain. Why care about this one odd and derelict religious structure? Because tearing it down contributes to the creeping homogenization of New York.
DXA’s brief was to preserve as much as it could (without being fundamentalist in its approach), add apartments, respect the neighborhood context, and, not least, come up with a financially viable solution that a well-intentioned developer could act on. The first option the firm explored was a boutique overhaul, tucking eight apartments beneath the existing roof and behind the walls, leaving the double-height sanctuary intact. That might please preservationists, but it produces too few apartments to justify the costs. Such a boutique project also seems precious right across Amsterdam Avenue from the behemoth Belnord, on a block lined with the kind of big squared-off palazzos that zoning and history allow.
Alchemy went through a similar exercise to support the congregation’s hardship application, cooking up several different proposals and reaching a foregone conclusion: They will never work. But it would be hard to imagine a more perfunctory effort, designed for summary rejection, than Alchemy’s. One scenario calls for the parish house, built in 1885 as the original sanctuary on the eastern edge of the site, to be knocked down and replaced with an ungainly tower that would cantilever over the rest of the complex like an upside-down ziggurat. Sadly, the developers report, that scheme would yield only “small, inefficient floor plans.”
DXA treated the notion of a respectful high-rise with more seriousness and good faith. Its 25 stories spring from a back corner of the site, rising above the existing roof like a feather in the church’s cap. The lobby takes over the parish house, but the façade and most of the rest of the complex remain untouched. The City Planning Commission would have to grant an exception to the zoning rules, but the reward would be a stylish tower, chipped and vertically striated in the upper corner. It’s an elegant and financially attractive proposal that would be worth refining; the upper-story views would set brokers salivating. But I suspect that in the end, bell tower and condo tower would still wind up looking like mismatched roommates forced to share a common lot. In any case, it would be politically unpalatable, since neighborhood groups would surely erect a barricade of objections to bending the rules for one more ostentatious stack of luxury pads.
The third iteration grows out of the old architecture’s fertile trunk and tops out at the adjoining rooflines. That proposal is a gift — to the site, the neighborhood, and the architecture of New York. In that hybrid version, the church gets to keep its walls, campanile, sanctuary, and, most important, its spirit. It does sacrifice its roof, but only in exchange for an addition that honors both precedent and imagination. The new design hews to the existing skyline but pulls away from the street, ceding primacy to the original and treating the bell tower as its prominent blazon. The gables that give the church its undulating profile anchor faceted walls that tilt and ripple, generating a textured, shadow-catching surface from the original’s crevices and bays. Clad in translucent sheets of alabaster-like stone and fritted glass, the new arrival refreshes the original’s red-rock glow and gives the whole complex a consistent mineral warmth. It also moves beyond the dumb leave-it-or-lose-it debates of most preservation battles and bridges the philosophical split between additions that imitate the original’s esthetic or answer it with unmistakable contrast. The upshot is far more than just a clever conversion; it’s a master class in how the style of one era can harmonize with that of a completely different time.
What about money? Even such a sensitively thought-out design will fail if it doesn’t pay. DXA’s design requires a financial compromise. A new from-scratch apartment block on that site could accommodate 101,000 square feet of usable space; DXA’s design yields about 77,000, which makes the math more complicated and margins tighter. The high-rise tower option would be a more straightforward construction project (but a costly and probably dead-end political battle), yield more deluxe views, and bring a more assured return. The lower-rise version is a more innovative project with correspondingly squishier math. Even so, it should be enough to keep the congregation in its home, pay for the restoration, add a couple dozen family-size homes to the Upper West Side’s supply, and bring in revenue to make investors happy. With that in mind, the LPC should deny the hardship application and urge the congregation to pursue a more nuanced and preservation-minded design. For what shall it profit a neighborhood to gain a whole condo building and lose its soul?