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Loathed UWS Church Conversion Is a No-Go at Landmarks

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The plan to convert a landmarked Upper West Side church into condos hit a bump in the road at the Landmarks Preservation Commission. On Tuesday, the LPC did not see fit to endorse the plan for the former First Church of Christ, Scientist of New York City at 361 Central Park West (a.k.a. 1 West 96th Street). The original structure, created by Carrere & Hastings, dates to 1903, and the community pretty much detests the conversion design.

It hasn't been a smooth road for this conversion. When the design was first revealed, there was outrage from community members, with one person saying the church "looked like it got shot up by a machine gun." Gerner Kronick + Valcarcel Architects gave Tuesday's presentation of a slightly revised plan, which won the reserved support of Community Board 7. It includes facade restoration, a three-foot-ten-inch vertical extension of the skylight, new masonry openings, stained glass window alterations, and new bronze and wood windows.

Among the new windows would be six right on the front of the building on Central Park West. Those were not well-liked. Also not wildly popular were the windows for the "open terrace" that would be created on one of the upper floors on the 96th Street side. There would also be new windows under the arched windows on the 97th Street side. Plus, there would be even more new windows on what is currently the back of the building, but will eventually be the front. An existing garage would be demolished to make way for the primary entrance, so the entrance would be through an alley in between buildings instead of on Central Park West. What would be on Central Park West? Apartments.

The plan presented included the removal, restoration, and re-installation of all stained glass, except for those labeled as having any religious significance. That plan did not go over well, either, but the design team said that they could not find any evidence pointing to John La Farge as having been the designer of the stained glass, even though that's a widely held belief. The team said they would be open to donating the removed stained glass, as they said the Mother Church up in Boston (the headquarters of the Christian Science Church) has no interest in them.

Other changes include new mechanical equipment on the roof, and spikes along the side of the building to discourage homeless people from sleeping there. The number of units has not been decided as the layout was still in flux and largely dependent on the approval of new windows, but the team said there would be no more than 30 units, with the smallest being a 1,400-square-foot one-bedroom.

Overall, the commissioners seemed open to the idea of adaptive reuse of the church building, though some lamented the interior losses. This is only an individual city landmark, not an interior one, so the LPC only has jurisdiction over the outside of the building.

Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan said the team was faced with a "challenge" and that the design was "sensitive." But she was among those who were unhappy with the new windows on Central Park West and said the reason for them needed to be better thought out. She wanted the size of the rooftop mechanical units reduced if possible, and noted that if the team reduced the number of floors, there would be no need for a vertical extension of the skylight at the penthouse level.

The oft-quotable Commissioner Frederick Bland started his remarks by saying that the public testimony (below) was some of the "most articulate" he'd ever heard. He said "good people disagree" and that he actually agreed with everything both sides said, which he called a "dilemma." He said one question was whether to wait for the perfect plan or proceed now, but he was uncomfortable with the new windows proposed for CPW. He also countered the design team's reasoning for removing the "religious" portions of the stained glass windows. They said they thought people might not buy the units if they had religious symbols. Bland argued that the building is a church and said they should be retained; if an owner wanted some of it removed, then it should go before the LPC.

Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron used the phrase "brutality of the banal," and lamented the loss of the structure's interior, which the design team kept calling an "auditorium" instead of a sanctuary. She said she'd prefer "inventive" reuse instead of adaptive reuse.

Commissioner Michael Goldblum talked about the building's interior being "blasted out to the sky" and said the existing structure has "charm by the ton." He echoed many of the previous concerns, agreeing that eliminating the new fifth floor could be used to reduce density, which would allow fewer windows to give more light to the units. Speaking of windows, it was also suggested that, if new windows are necessary on Central Park West, they be behind the columns. The other commissioners were intrigued.

In a statement, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer also opposed the removal of any stained glass, noting that the windows "are part of the beautiful and historic architectural details which give the building its aesthetic value and great distinction."

The Historic Districts Council welcomed adaptive reuse, but called proposal "a cruel treatment of an individual landmark, particularly the removal of stained glass windows. This building is clearly a church; one imagines that prospective tenants will be attracted to it because of its former life as a house of worship. Therefore, retaining original elements would only add to its value and marketability as a unique residence," HDC's Kelly Carroll said. "Arbitrarily cutting window openings into a building described in its designation as being 'the finest tradition of Beaux Arts classicism' will be permanently damaging to the landmark."

Christabel Gough of the Society for the Architecture of the City called the proposal "violence" and said it needs to be "completely rethought," while a representative from Landmark West pushed for an entirely different use of the building. Preservation assistant Max Yeston said of building owner Joseph Brunner, "Despite his desire to maximize profits for this building, we maintain that either the residential conversion must be more sensitive to the historic fabric, or a new use must be found. Re-occupancy by various congregations, or cultural, performance, arts, educational and library research spaces, which typically mandate high ceilings and large interiors, demands far fewer changes to the exterior." He added, "The use should be adapted to the building's form, not the other way around."

Yeston also brought letters from noted architects Robert A.M. Stern, who called this "one of the city's most compelling religious structures in the Classical manner," and Charles D. Warren, who literally wrote the book on the architects of the church. Architect Alastair Standing also complained about the removal of the stained glass, as did a man named Max, who resides at 12 West 96th Street and goes to look at it every day. There was some support for the project, including Alex Herrera of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, who said the proposal "promises improvements" with "modest" changes, and is a "sensitive adaptation."

But ultimately, the commission voted against the project, leaving the design team to rework their proposal and return to the LPC.

—Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.
· All 361 Central Park West coverage [Curbed]
· All Landmarks Preservation coverage [Curbed]