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Contentious Church-to-Condo Conversion Finally Gets Blessed

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Third time's the charm? That was the number of tries it took for a controversial residential conversion, planned for a landmarked Upper West Side church, to win approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Yesterday, after attempts in December and February, the LPC at last gave developers and architects the green light to renovate the former First Church of Christ Scientist at 96th Street and Central Park West into condos. Last time, the biggest sticking point was new windows proposed for the park-facing façade—a challenge for the business side, because buyers are going to want windows in their apartments. This time, changes to the stained glass window on that same facade nearly derailed the proposal.

The building itself was designed by Carrere & Hastings—who built the flagship branch of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, among other projects—and completed in 1903. The conversion is the handiwork of Gerner Kronick + Valcarcel Architects.

The issue of the windows on side of the building that faces Central Park was solved quite simply—by removing them from the renderings. Also removed from the design were new windows under the arched windows along 96th Street (though they were still pictured in the presentation). However, many new windows will be added to the west side of the building, as well as the 97th Street (or north) side, where a terrace will be constructed on the seventh floor. In addition to that, there will be new lights and security cameras added.

Now for the sticking point: the large stained glass window on the Central Park West façade. The previous proposal called for the removal of religious iconography. That would not have been totally out of line, since the LPC has approved a similar change in other instances, but the designs showed a window re-do that left it more square than arched, which didn't please the commissioners. So, the applicant reconfigured the removal to leave the arched appearance. However, in the end, the commissioners just weren't sold on the void left without the stained glass. Some even expressed a desire to retain the current motifs, but at least one said the idea of requiring retention of something religious was troubling.

Commissioner Michael Devonshire suggested frosting the interior to allow the iconography to be preserved without offending the eventual occupants of the unit or units (depending on the final interior configuration). The final approval asked the applicant to work with staff on a "textured" (read: visually appealing and appropriate) replacement for the religious iconography to be removed from the window. Disagreement over the stained glass meant that it was not a unanimous approval. The final vote was seven to three.

Like the last time this project went before the LPC, it was in the form of a public meeting, not a public hearing. A public hearing is when a project is first presented and anyone who signs up is allowed to deliver three minutes of testimony. A public meeting is for revisions to unapproved proposals, and the commissioners are supposed to take the previous public testimony into account. (Recall that many members of the public loathed the original design.) In February, when the first revision went before the LPC, Kate Wood of Upper West Side preservation group Landmark West interrupted the proceedings and then walked out in protest. This time around, she and one of her employees simply stood holding images of the stained glass window. So even though the project was approved, not everyone is happy about it.

Click through renderings, floorplans, and photos of the to-be-converted church, below:

—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 Landmarks Preservation coverage [Curbed]
· All 361 Central Park West coverage [Curbed]