No decision reached yet at LPC regarding Park Avenue Christian Church

By: Scott Henson

Evan Bindelglass reports for Curbed: Opponents Lambast Plan To Replace Parts of Park Ave. Church.

The word “epic” definitely applied to yesterday’s meeting of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The case at hand: prolific developer Extell’s plan to replace the Park Avenue Christian Church’s rectory and parish hall with a 16-story mixed-use apartment building, using some money from the development to fund an endowment to restore the church’s sanctuary. (How on trend of them, converting a site from religious to residential.)

The hearing over the proposal took three hours because a whopping 38 people delivered public testimony, mostly against the design. By the time everyone finished airing opinions, it was so late that the commissioners’ discussion and any subsequent decision had to be tabled for a future session.

The Park Avenue Christian Church (then known as the South Church or South Reformed Dutch Church) was designed by Bertram Goodhue of Cram, Goodhue & Ferguson and completed at the southwest corner of Park Avenue and East 85th Street, along with a rectory and parish hall to the south along the avenue, in 1911. In 1963, the rectory and parish hall were heavily modified and in-filled, leaving only a small portion of the original rectory façade in place.

Now the church, which boasts a lovely sanctuary inspired by Saint-Chapelle in Paris along with an attic festooned with Guastavino tile, needs some TLC, but says it doesn’t have the money for it. So, they entered into a deal with Gary Barnett’s Extell Development Company to demolish the parish hall and rectory, replacing them with the aforementioned 16-story building, which would have several floors devoted to the church and the rest as apartments (probably condos). The site is located in the Park Avenue Historic District, which was designated in April of this year, and that is why this proposal has to pass muster before the LPC. When the district was designated, the buildings in question were determined to have no architectural style.

Whatever people think of the current design, courtesy of historically sensitive superstars Beyer Blinder Belle, everyone has to admit that it’s far, far better than a previous iteration, which was much larger and showed a glassy, angular structure cantilevering over a significant portion of the church.

Following the counsel for the church and Pastor Alvin Jackson, architect John Beyer made his presentation about the design side of the project. The new tower would be limestone with a granite base and terra cotta cladding on the upper floors. The rear would be brick. There would also be a terrace on the rear of the building, which is a space currently occupied by the expanded parish hall. Beyer said a light well, built using fragments of the remaining rectory façade, will allow some light into the sanctuary, along with some artificial light.

He noted his design’s “strong verticality” and said the stepping and setbacks complement the church. He said he was using a “neutral palette” and that a streetwall building was, in his mind, “mandatory.” He also said that leaving the rectory façade fragment in place and integrating it into the building was not practical. In addition, a new ADA-compliant entrance would be constructed along the 85th Street side of the church.

Most of those who spoke in support of the project, a numerical minority, had a direct connection to the church, including Rabbi Ari Fridkis, whose Temple of Universal Judaism (Congregation Da’at Elohim) shares the sanctuary with the church. He gave it his “spiritual” and “ethical” blessing. Rick Bell, AIANY’s executive director, praised the new building, the construction of new housing, and the streetwall design. Two Upper East Siders with no apparent direct connection to the church spoke of the project’s “quality materials that will complement the stone of the church,” said the church needs the development, questioned the need to preserve the church’s supplementary buildings, and praised the new ADA entrance.

For many, preserving the parish hall was important. “While the damage has already been done as far as the building’s designation is concerned, HDC would urge the LPC that this site’s future begins with the preservation of the building which is already there,” the Historic Districts Council’s Kelly Carroll said. Tara Kelly, executive director of the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, wants the “no style” designation of the parish hall re-evaluated and the district designation report amended, saying the hall and the church “together form a monumental complex.” The church was recognized by the LPC as “Gothic Revival,” and Kelly wants the same recognition for the parish hall—and wants it integrated into any new construction.

Preservation architect Robert Bates of Walter B. Melvin Architects also said the parish hall should be deemed to have a style. A spokesperson delivering a joint statement from State Senator Liz Krueger and City Councilman Daniel Garodnick said the parish hall alterations were “rather sensitive” and neither of them were “able to discern any change when shown before and after pictures.” One speaker opposed to the demolition said “our history is our future,” and another said demolition would be “contrary to every principle of landmark preservation.” One Upper East Side resident said the proposal asks the community to “split the baby.”

For some, the size of the new building was the issue that loomed the largest; they called for a lower height and reduced massing overall. Latha Thompson, district manager for Community Board 8, delivered their 36-8 vote against the project. She said it was too big and diminished the church. A speaker named Mark Goldstein, who really talked down to the commissioners, called for a smaller building, but did so as a direct dig at Extell’s Barnett, saying he would have no sympathy for him if he made a little less money off of this development.

Still on the size issue, HDC’s Carroll called for at least a 12-foot separation between the church and the new building and the removal of the penthouse, which would allow more light in. Another issue was design. Some felt it was appropriate, and played nicely with the church’s. Others were less enamored. HDC’s Carroll found “the design creative and the materials laudable, but assembled in a peculiar style recognized by our committee as ‘Gotham Gothic,’ a cartoonist version of Art Deco skyscrapers best suited to animation, not the real world of Park Avenue.” Friends of the Upper East Side’s Kelly echoed that, calling the design “too angular and vertical in style” and adding that the crown was more evocative of an Art Deco office tower than the site’s Revivalist neighbors. She pointed out that the district has only one Art Deco building, at 944 Park Avenue.

Not all of the commissioners made it through the three-hour-long hearing. It’s worth noting that, with the exception of chair Meenakshi Srinivasan, all of the commissioners are unpaid for their public service. So, at about 5:45 p.m., Srinivasan realized that no decision could be made. She tasked the project’s team to come back, ready to pick up with responses to the testimony and the following issues: incorporating a fragment of the remaining original rectory façade, the building’s height, its setbacks, light issues, windows, and the way the views of the church would be affected.

Her request doesn’t necessitate a re-design as the discussion will basically pick up where it left off. That means that after the project team provides some answers (or rebuttals), the commissioners will deliberate and decide whether to approve the project. Srinivasan said the written record will remain open for two weeks. If anyone wants to submit something, contact the LPC.

To see more images of the project click here.

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