Image credit: New York Landmarks Conservancy

Walking along Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, one might pass by a remarkable, albeit crumbling church on the corner of West Eighty-Sixth Street without giving it even the most perfunctory glance. Given that the building has been surrounded by a sidewalk shed—effectively horizontal scaffolding protecting pedestrians from falling debris—for twenty-odd years, an individual dashing to work or running errands might view the property as nothing more than a neighborhood eyesore. More curious minds might wonder why it continues to lie fallow given the intractable housing crisis besetting the city. 

This is the West-Park Presbyterian Church, once described by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commision as “one of the best examples of a Romanesque Revival style religious structure in New York City.” Home to a moribund congregation reportedly numbering no more than dozen, a convoluted public argument spanning decades and pitting preservation against development and history against pragmatism stands to shape the building’s fate. The outcome of this debate will also signal how New York values its past and how the city wants to construct its future. 

Designed by architects Leopold Eidlitz and Henry Frank Kilburn and completed in 1890, today’s West-Park was formed out of the merging of several Presbyterian congregations in 1911. The church served as a center for the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and it hosted Daniel and Philip Berrigan as well as other prominent activists. God’s Love We Deliver, an organization originally conceived to prepare and deliver meals to AIDS victims, began working in West-Park’s kitchen in the late 1980s. Today, an arts center and several small art organizations are based in the physical church. 

Image Credit: British Library/Flickr

Facing strained finances and dwindling attendance, the congregation and leadership of West-Park began exploring development options for the property, specifically demolition of the church structure and construction of a residential tower on its footprint. This led to neighborhood, organizational, and political pushback, culminating in the landmarking of the site in 2010 which effectively prevented any alteration of the building’s exterior. Facing an estimated cost of $50 million in repairs and restoration, West-Park announced that it would appeal its historical designation and that it had entered into an agreement with a developer to raze the physical church and build a luxury apartment complex in its place. Recently, Upper West Side celebrity residents, such as actor Mark Ruffalo and rapper Common, entered the fray, arguing against West-Park’s legal appeal. At the moment, the property’s future remains unclear.

Throughout New York City and the United States, religious structures with rich, compelling histories populated by colorful, memorable characters likely face fates similar to that of West-Park Presbyterian Church. There are far too many aging, underutilized spaces to be rescued by wealthy benefactors or to experience a community rebirth, and not all of these sacred buildings can be saved, reimagined, and repurposed. Nonetheless, when a storied church—or any welcoming public space—is torn down and leveled, far more is lost than simply brick and mortar and wood and stained glass.   

The history of West-Park shows how dynamic houses of worship serve as a critical segment of the social infrastructure of neighborhoods and communities and furnish the physical setting for individuals and groups to meet, exchange ideas, and effect democratic and societal change. They belong to the category of third spaces—neither work, nor home—where people can encounter different types of individuals and interact with an expectation of safety and a degree of openness. Third spaces facilitate personal connections and community health. The closing of a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque weakens the greater social fabric. 

The sanctuary of West-Park Presbyterian Church (Image credit: Steven Bornholtz/Wikimedia Commons)

From an aesthetic perspective, meticulously crafted and architecturally significant houses of worship shape the streetscape and skyline. They orient residents and visitors alike, visually situating them in a specific geography. Such artful structures represent a lineage, a connection to a locale’s past and its long-departed people. The total effect of these buildings might inform individuals that they themselves are important, special, and deserving of beauty and history. Quite possibly, this might stir a sense of wonder and even spiritual longing. A disbeliever might gasp at a powerfully beautiful space and wonder if God might just exist.        

These reasons present a rationale for the cultivation and preservation of our tactile and architectural heritage, including houses of worship. However, practical considerations—available capital, human resources, and public policy—cannot be simply dismissed. West-Park Presbyterian Church lacks the ability to maintain, let alone restore, its physical home. As a congregation, it is fading away. And New York City is mired in a housing crisis.

Judging from the headlines and cast of characters involved, several chapters still remain in the saga of West-Park Presbyterian Church. How they unfold might inform preservation and development efforts of houses of worship and religious communities elsewhere in New York and in other cities.

David Goodwin is an urban historian, author, and Assistant Director of the Center on Religion and Culture.