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Upper West Side church-to-museum conversion spurs heated debate

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The Children’s Museum of Manhattan presented their plans to turn a landmarked church into their main home

A Beaux Arts church in a street corner.
The former First Church of Christ Scientist at 361 Central Park West, which the Children’s Museum of Manhattan bought in late 2017.
Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC)/FXCollaborative

The Children’s Museum of Manhattan (CMOM) has unveiled its proposal to convert a landmarked Upper West Side church into its main hub, a move that has elicited disapproval from some area preservationists.

At a packed and contentious Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) hearing this week, CMOM presented its proposal to transform the Beaux Arts church at 361 Central Park West into a museum comprised of programming, performance, and administrative space. The institution purchased the church in 2017 for $45 million after a lengthy search for a new home.

This isn’t the first time an owner of the site has proposed a reimagining of the Carrère & Hastings building. In 2015, a developer tried to convert the former First Church of Christ Scientist into condos. Following fierce community opposition and a rejection from the Board of Standards and Appeals, those plans were shelved.

It appears a conversion of any sort at the site will be hard won. On this week’s over four-hour hearing, preservationists, neighbors, and members of the Christian congregation formerly housed in the church expressed their opposition to the plans. Presented by Sylvia Smith of FXCollaborative, which CMOM tapped to lead the project, the redesign calls for adding a roof for performance and workshop space, removing several stained glass windows, and lowering some entrances to make them ADA-compliant.

An entrance to a church with doric columns and three doors.
A detailed view of the proposal for the front of the church.
Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC)/FXCollaborative

Locals are particularly adamant against the roof addition to the structure, which would be visible from West 96th Street. They were also against the removal of historic stained glass windows containing religious imagery, some of which the museum intends to donate to the National Building Arts Center in St. Louis.

Pastor Terry Starks, leader of the Fresh Start New Beginning church, which was housed in the building from 2007 to 2010, said his congregation has long been interested in purchasing the site. Starks was also part of the group that fought against the developer’s plans to convert the church into a residential building in 2015.

“Why buy a church if you don’t like the windows, when you knew that they were landmarked when you purchased it?” Lynda Starks, wife of Pastor Terry Starks, said during the hearing.

Some preservationists and community members packed into the LPC chamber this week said removing the windows and adding the roof addition amounted to “cultural vandalism.”

“A major work of Carrère & Hastings is not a blank canvas. It has a unique form, landmarked, distinctive, and hopefully to be preserved as heritage,” Christabel Gough, of the Society for the Architecture of the City, said during the hearing. “The applicants view the roof as a potential amenity and a site for elevator over-runs, not a defining architectural feature. This is a huge mistake. The whole purpose of adaptive reuse is preservation.”

Meanwhile, several elected officials sent representatives to express their support for the plans, including Upper West Side City Council member Mark Levine. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who attended the hearing, also favored the idea of the building becoming the museum’s new home.

“It’s supposed to be a place of public assembly. It was and is meant to be enjoyed by many, not just a few people, so I’m really glad this proposal will open the building to the public,” Manhattan Borough President Brewer said at the hearing, while also noting some specific aspects of the plan that could be revisited. “The repurposing of valued churches of historic significance is difficult, a very difficult challenge,” she added.

Prominent architect Deborah Berke, dean of Yale School of Architecture, also sent a letter to the LPC supporting the museum’s plans. Former LPC Commissioner Sherida Paulson, as well as the co-chairs of the community board’s landmarks committee, also voiced support for the proposal.

A representative for the museum said the institution looks forward to continuing conversations on the project.

“[The plan] is the best way to restore the historic building while bringing it back to public use as a space to serve the community,” a spokesperson for CMOM told Curbed in a statement. “We developed a proposal that would adaptively reuse this important building into an accessible, open, light-filled and dynamic institution that will serve children and families for generations to come.”

The LPC commissioners echoed some of the concerns brought up during the hearing, namely the roof addition’s visibility and the removal of some of the stained glass windows. The commission didn’t take action on the proposal but asked the museum to rework some of their plans before returning to the LPC. Back in early January, Manhattan Community Board 7 voted to disapprove the proposal citing similar concerns.