The birthing of Museum Mile West


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After a plan to build condos in the former Christian Science church on Central Park West collapsed, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan scooped up the historic building


Photos



  • The Children’s Museum of Manhattan has purchased the former home of the First Church of Christ, Scientist on Central Park West and 96th Street for $45 million. Photo: Emily Munro / CMOM 




  • The Children’s Museum of Manhattan has purchased the former home of the First Church of Christ, Scientist on Central Park West and 96th Street for $45 million. It plans to move into the eye-catching 1903 building in 2021.Photo: Emily Munro / CMOM 




  • “America to Zanzibar,” which explored Muslim cultures around the world, was a popular recent exhibit at the longtime home of the Children’s Museum of Manhattan on West 83rd Street. Photo: Emily Munro / Children’s Museum of Manhattan 




  • “America to Zanzibar,” which explored Muslim cultures around the world, was a popular recent exhibit at the longtime home of the Children’s Museum of Manhattan on West 83rd Street. Photo: Emily Munro / Children’s Museum of Manhattan 




  • “Dynamic H20,” which explains how water from the Catskill Mountains reaches New York City, is a permanent exhibit at the longtime home of the Children’s Museum of Manhattan on West 83rd Street. The museum is moving to the landmark First Church of Christ, Scientist on Central Park West and 96th Street in 2021, Photo: John Smock / Children’s Museum of Manhattan




Every once in a while, one of New York City’s century-old buildings will bring out the touch of the poet in the preservationist:

“I have always felt that I lived near the eighth wonder of the world,” said Susan Simon, the founder of the CPW Neighbors Association.

“It is of the same caliber, the same architectural pedigree, as the New York Public Library,” said Sean Khorsandi, the executive director of Landmark West!

“In the finest tradition of Beaux-Arts classicism,” the city’s Landmarks Preservation commission observed in 1974 when it conferred landmark designation.

“One of the city’s most compelling religious structures,” the architect Robert A.M. Stern, who went on to design 15 Central Park West, wrote in 1983.

So what is this historical, architectural, ecclesiastical and aesthetic marvel on the Upper West Side, why does it matter — and what exactly is going on at the site today?

First of all, it’s the former home of the First Church of Christ, Scientist and was built on the northwest corner of 96th Street and Central Park West between 1899 and 1903 to rival the cathedral-like grandeur of the faith’s “Mother Church” in Boston.

Sumptuous and monumental — fronting Central Park, graced by some of the city’s most stunning stained-glass windows, centered on a nave that once seated 2,200-plus people, crowned by a spire that soars above a cluster of Ionic columns — it is, in a word, a masterpiece.

Carrère & Hastings was the architect, and the storied firm labored on project design even as its more fabled Beaux-Arts creation, the main branch of the public library, was rising along Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street.

Could such a treasure ever be imperiled? Actually, yes. First Church’s landmark status protects its exterior, but preservationists feared that its character and integrity could be undermined after a developer in 2014 unveiled plans to insert 34 hyper-luxe condos into the interior.

Civic groups called it an “invasive scheme” to “carve out the heart of a city landmark.” Elected officials inveighed against it. A two-year battle ensued. Then in June 2016, the proposal was nixed by the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals. After that: Silence and uncertainty for a year and a half as community activists prayed for a nonprofit white knight.

Finally, a breakthrough. Three days before Christmas, after negotiations that had been kept secret, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan quietly closed on the $45 million purchase of 361 Central Park West for its new home. The seller was Brooklyn developer Joseph Brunner, who had put the property on the block after his condo plan collapsed.

“Architectural gems like this should really be open to the public, and this preserves a historic building for public usage,” said Andrew S. Ackerman, the museum’s executive director.

“So many landmark buildings in New York have been turned into private residences and condos, and that’s fine for some people,” he added. “But here, the public will be able to enjoy both the interior and exterior of a great older building that will be preserved and opened up in an educational setting.”

Founded in 1973 on West 54th Street, CMOM has been operating since 1989 out of 38,000 square feet of leased space at 212 West 83rd St., where it is currently serving roughly 375,000 people.

Expect those numbers to double when the museum moves into the old church in late 2021, after a four-year reconfiguration that Ackerman says will be shepherded by a city-based architectural firm, not yet selected, with experience working in landmarked buildings.

By using all available space, from below grade to the spire on top, and working with soaring 36-foot ceilings that could potentially be used to create new mezzanine levels, the museum believes it can reap some 70,000 square feet, basically a doubling of its existing exhibition space.

With far more room to enthrall children and their parents, attendance is also expected to increase dramatically, to a projected 750,000 visitors annually, Ackerman said.

One major lure: You can’t beat the transportation. And the big emerald neighbor to the east is unmatched. “There’s a subway on the corner, a crosstown bus on the corner — and then there is that wonderful park across the street,” he added.

Converting the building, which had most recently housed the Crenshaw Christian Center East and was acquired by Brunner in 2014, won’t come cheap. The museum pegs the tab at about $75 million. Cable TV network Nickelodeon, an early project funder, will underwrite some of the exhibition space, while the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs has pledged $5.5 million for renovations costs.

When CMOM takes occupancy, it will become the northernmost of four singular cultural institutions on a 20-block stretch of Central Park West — the New-York Historical Society on 76th Street and, nearby, the American Museum of Natural History and its adjoining Rose Center for Earth and Space.

“It creates a Museum Mile West,” said Ackerman, who has headed the museum since 1990.

It will also end, at least for the foreseeable future, a real estate saga of ever-spiraling prices that began in 2003 when the First Church of Christ, Scientist merged with the Second Church of Christ, Scientist, moved its congregation to the original home of Second Church, at Central Park West and 68th Street, and sold its legacy location to Crenshaw for $14 million in 2004.

After a decade-plus in residency, the Los Angeles-based ministry sold the building to the for-profit 361 CPW LLC for $26 million in 2014, and a few months later, the limited liability company flipped it to Brunner for $42 million. For $3 million more, CMOM will be restoring it to nonprofit status.

Elected officials were exultant: “This is great news and shows that there is a better way — that our community’s congregations and nonprofits can benefit from the beautiful old historic buildings they own without gutting them and giving them to condo developers,” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said.

“The Children’s Museum is a terrific institution with a wonderful mission, and it will work wonderfully in this landmarked building — without closing it to the public or demolishing its significant features,” she added.

Agreed Council Member Helen Rosenthal, whose district actually ends on the south side of 96th Street, across the street from the church on the north side, “It is an appropriate repurposing of this extraordinary building, which is such an important part of the physical and historic fabric of the Upper West Side.”

It almost didn’t happen. “The developer wanted to put 40 windows into the granite, remove the stained-glass windows, raise a penthouse on the roof, make the steeple into a triplex and build a roof garden and terraces,” said Simon, whose CPW Neighbors Association, along with Landmark West!, led the fight to kill the project. “Is nothing sacred?

Actually, at the end of the day, from the community’s perspective, the sacred did triumph over the profane.

“We operate nationally and internationally, but I think that from both the psychological and the practical point of view, the Upper West Side — with its spirit of openness and thirst for arts and culture and education — is the best place for us to be,” Ackerman said.








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