Sanctuaries are for saving

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Two hallowed houses of worship on the UWS are getting a new lease on life with funding from a landmarks advocacy group


  • Broadway Presbyterian Church, at West 114th Street in Morningside Heights, is shoring up its century-old facade after a chunk of tower masonry fell to the sidewalk. Grants from the New York Landmarks Conservancy are helping to fund the renovations. Photo: Courtesy of New York Landmarks Conservancy

  • West Park Presbyterian Church, at Amsterdam Avenue and West 86th Street on the Upper West Side, needs massive infrastructure repairs and is transitioning to a cultural center. Photo: Courtesy of New York Landmarks Conservancy

“They’re building something that goes far beyond themselves and the needs of their own congregations.”

Peg Breen, president of New York Landmarks Conservancy

It is the stuff of ecclesiastical nightmares: A piece of masonry breaks off and falls from a church bell tower high above Broadway. The cast-stone strikes a man on the sidewalk below. Miraculously, his injuries are light.

The Broadway Presbyterian Church at West 114th Street first opened for prayer service in 1912. Galvanized by near-tragedy in 2016, it set out to upgrade its century-old infrastructure and meet escalating capital costs.

And that’s where the New York Landmarks Conservancy comes in. The nonprofit provided an initial $7,500 grant in 2017 to help underwrite architectural drawings for urgently needed masonry restoration work.

The seed funding gave the project instant credibility, allowing church elders to leverage other funders. Soon, bid documents were drawn up to guide repairs. But additional cash was needed to undertake the job.

Now, the Conservancy, which funds restoration projects that protect and preserve the city’s architectural heritage, is awarding a $30,000 “sacred sites” matching grant to help pay for exterior-envelope work.

Again, it’s just the beginning. But Broadway Presbyterian has already met the $30,000 challenge, received the funds, attracted other donors — and kicked off a comprehensive $1.2 million repair project to protect its neighbors and parishioners and shore up its structure to last through the 21st century.

“Failure can be the red light that triggers all the actions that come next to make everything safe,” said Ann-Isabel Friedman, director of the Conservancy’s sacred sites program, which was launched in 1986 to aid religious organizations statewide in preserving historic properties.


Over 32 years, the program has awarded more than 1,400 grants to roughly 780 congregations tallying more than $12 million, sums that churches and synagogues are typically required to match in a process that’s helped leverage $740 million-plus in restoration projects.

The grants help professionalize what is often known, in the lingo of the overseers of religious buildings, as the “patch-and-prayer method,” by which they refer to seemingly haphazard renovation work.

The English Gothic Revival-style church isn’t the only Presbyterian institution on the Upper West Side whose infrastructure has been battered by gales off the Hudson and 100-plus years of intensive use.

West Park Presbyterian Church, 28 blocks to the south at Amsterdam Avenue and West 86th Street, has structural problems and issues with multiple building elements — including its roofing, skylights, windows, frames, doors, steps, gutters, chimneys, stonework, access ramps and tower masonry.

Finished in 1890 and designated a city landmark in 2010, the boldly-massed Romanesque Revival-style church complex has been swaddled in scaffolding for years — its sanctuary damaged by water, its numerous angled roofs rotting, its deep-red sandstone façade eroding.

“Ultimately, it’s a $20 million project,” said J. Pat O’Connell, chair of the building committee at the Center at West Park, a cultural nonprofit that stewards the church’s restoration and manages building facilities.

But first things first: The initial phase of a planned four-phase, multi-year rehabilitation is the replacement of a roof in the community house, the oldest portion of the church campus, a project O’Connell pegs at $100,000 and expects to begin later this year.

Again, the Conservancy is stepping up. It just awarded a $10,000 grant that West Park has to match, on top of $2,500 it provided in 2017 for technical advice and roof-repair management services.

Before that, it worked with the church for 20 years, pitching in when it had neither heat nor a boiler and congregants had to attend services in winter coats. Past grants include $7,000 for roof drainage and masonry repairs in 2014 and $2,000 to survey plaster cracks in 2011.


Old age and creaky bones, as it turns out, are not the only things that Broadway Presbyterian and West Park have in common. Both houses of worship have welcomed an array of nonprofit tenants and charted new directions that go far beyond their traditional pastoral callings.

“They serve thousands of people — and they’re building something that goes far beyond themselves and the needs of their own congregations,” said Peg Breen, president of the Conservancy.

“You don’t have to be religious to know that these churches are part of the city’s heritage, they reflect the city’s architectural styles, and they provide a tremendous amount of social services and support to the communities around them,” Breen added.

Indeed, Broadway Presbyterian, which has around 300 worshippers and doubles as the home of the oldest Korean Methodist church on the East Coast, serves about 18,000 people a year with numerous social-service programs, Friedman said.

Its walk-in food pantry feeds 100 people a week. It serves 35,000 meals a year to the needy. Its homeless shelter houses 13 men. Its nursery school teaches 45 students.

Meanwhile, West Park, with a dwindling membership of around 30 that uses a small chapel instead of its large sanctuary, has repositioned itself as a community cultural center and showplace for the arts.

Its 74-seat Balcony Theater is a venue for puppetry, readings, classes and Off-Off Broadway shows, while its 420-seat Sanctuary Theater is a stage for dance, opera, concerts and Off-Broadway productions. It is also home to the Furnace Festival, which calls itself a “forum for incendiary new plays.”

“Broadway Presbyterian is typical of mainline Manhattan churches that have successfully reinvented themselves for the 21st century,” Friedman said. “West Park is in the process or reinventing itself by ramping up its arts program and functioning more as an arts center than a church.”

Adds O’Connell, “It is no longer really just a Presbyterian church anymore. It’s a valuable cultural asset for the community. And not only for the immediate neighbors — it is for everyone on the Upper West Side in the 70s and 80 and 90s and 100s.”

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