Reopening the Close: St. John the Divine unveils latest development proposal

See a version of this article, with images, as it recently appeared in The Architect’s Newspaper.

In the 120 years since its cornerstone was laid, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine has gained repute for its exemplary Gothic Revival architecture but also its perpetual state of incompletion. Now, development of the cathedral grounds, called the “close,” is continuing the Cathedral’s association with construction. A deal with the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2003, which led the City Council to overturn the Cathedral’s landmark designation, allowed St. John’s to lease sites on the north and southeast perimeters of the close to developers. A twenty-story residential building on the Southeast Site, at 110th Street and Morningside Drive, opened in 2008 amid criticism of its size and aesthetic. Plans are progressing to break ground in 2013 on the North Site, along 113th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive, for a controversial second residential tower.

At a recent public forum, the Cathedral unveiled initial massing studies to over 60 community members. Cathedral Dean James Kowalski explained that, despite fundraising and efforts to contain administrative costs, the Cathedral operates at a 10% deficit. With ongoing financial obligations, including repairs to the church building, Kowalski asserted that development was necessary to “preserve the economic future of the Cathedral.”

George Kruse, Vice President of Development for Equity Residential, addressed community concerns about including subsidized housing, involving local businesses and consultants, and facilitating local residents’ access to labor union membership. In particular, he noted that of the 400 units in the planned building, 20% will be reserved for affordable housing. Gary Handel of Handel Architects, LLP, most recently known for the World Trade Center Memorial, presented the firm’s massing studies; further details of the building’s design remain in progress.

Several attendees praised efforts to minimize the building’s bulk and to use the site, which currently houses stonecutting sheds from the 1980s, to integrate the close with the surrounding community. Still, many residents of Morningside Heights expressed such concerns as the building’s potential to increase neighborhood crowding, the environmental impact on traffic, noise, and light, and the visual effects on both the exterior and interior of the church. One attendee informed the Cathedral that the North Site had formerly borne the scattered ashes of AIDS patients from St. Luke’s Hospital across the street. Community members also questioned the Cathedral’s claims of financial hardship, given the wealth of the larger Episcopalian diocese.

Michael Henry Adams spoke on behalf of State Senator Bill Perkins, who opposes the construction proposal, and expressed his own conviction that the Cathedral property merits more respect as a world-class landmark. “If we were in Paris, at Notre Dame, would someone propose this?” he said. “The answer, of course, is no… This is not a sustainable proposition, for the Cathedral to keep taking the very thing that makes it so unique and extraordinary and diminishing it.”

After the meeting, Kowalski affirmed that the development plans stem not only from financial hardship but also from a weighing of costs and benefits. “I understand how special this property is, and how people believe that it should be like a park, but you’re talking about almost twelve acres of land, and you’re talking about two perimeter parcels. I actually think this is good stewardship,” he said. “I think you could make a very strong argument that if you didn’t need the money, you should still generate the revenue to fund other missions.”

Gregory Dietrich, a preservation consultant and adviser to the Morningside Heights Historic District Committee, was not convinced that the plans respected the Cathedral’s historical legacy and architectural significance. Echoing the requests of a number of attendees, he said, “One of the things I think is really important is that they continue to have meetings with the community. This certainly doesn’t satisfy anybody, just to see massing studies.”

Kowalski could not confirm whether the Cathedral intends to hold additional community forums, as he expects a short timeframe for the design process. “We’re really excited because the rental market is stronger than we thought it was,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll see people living in the new building for probably a couple of years. But could it be started in six months or a year? I would hope so.”

National Preservation Conference: Wrapping up, not winding down

My first National Preservation Conference experience has come and gone, and I, like the thousands of other preservationist attendees, have left Buffalo with a bundle of new ideas and a renewed sense of appreciation for having found myself in this field. I try to make sense of it all in my latest post; to read it, hop on over to the PreservationNation blog at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Open House NY: Another haven among headstoneless graves

After Sunday’s tour of “Sacred Havens of the East Village” for Open House New York, I hurried to the New York Marble Cemetery to spend an hour there before it closed. Open to the public only a few days per year, the burial ground sometimes known as the “Second Avenue Cemetery” is the “oldest public non-sectarian cemetery in New York City.” Interments took place in 156 underground, Tuckahoe marble vaults, marked above ground at their entrances by markers prone in the grass, and some by monuments. Without headstones, the cemetery has the initial sense of a private garden, its rows of flat markers resembling hopscotch squares. But after time spent there, the place reveals an air of sanctity that only an historic cemetery can evoke. The first three images below are of a poster, displayed for OHNY, with photos and drawings of the cemetery vaults in plan and section; click to zoom and find out how the site was designed. Scroll down for a slideshow of photos I took in this quiet corner of the city.



Open House NY: Sacred Havens of the East Village

This afternoon, derailed by “necessary track work,” I took a circuitous tour of the underground (subway stations of the cross?) that eventually reached the Open House New York tour of “Sacred Havens of the East Village.” The latter expedition, led by Terri Cook, author of Sacred Havens: A Guide to Manhattan’s Spiritual Places, explored some of the sites that have acted as cultural and spiritual refuges for the various immigrant groups that have populated the East Village throughout its history.

We first gathered outside of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer on E. 3rd Street near Avenue A. Built in 1851-52 and renovated in 1913 by Paul Schulz, the church was established for German immigrants living in the area of the city that was known as Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany.” Although the church moved on to serve new immigrant communities, it is still known as the “German Cathedral.”

original stained glass from 1852

The Meseritz Synagogue was founded in 1888 to serve Eastern European Jews. A rare remaining tenement synagogue, squeezed between buildings on a narrow E. 6th Street lot, it has made news in recent years for its resistance to landmark designation.

The Max D. Raiskin Center began as the German Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Mark in 1848. Most of the victims of the 1904 General Slocum steamship disaster (the greatest loss of civilian lives in New York City until September 11) were women and children from St. Mark’s congregation. Largely as a result of this tragedy, many of the surviving German men in Kleindeutschland migrated elsewhere in the city, and the area’s Jewish population became more prevalent. The 1940 conversion of St. Mark’s into an Orthodox Jewish synagogue left the building’s interior footprint untouched.

Established in 1628, the Middle Collegiate Church erected its current building in 1892 and served a Dutch congregation. The church apparently houses a dozen Tiffany windows. (I wish I could have seen them; my sole gripe with this Open House NY tour was that only two of the sites we visited were actually “open house.”)

The St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Roman Catholic Church moved into the next building on the tour in 1901 and ministered to the Polish community; it continues to conduct most masses in Polish.

The tour’s last stop was the St. Nicholas of Myra Church of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese, located at E. 10th Street and Avenue A. Designed by the esteemed James Renwick, Jr., the 1883 church’s Renaissance Revival brick exterior opens into what our guide accurately described as a “little jewel box” of bright paint and glass. This haven provided a picturesque setting for her concluding appeal for us to continue supporting NYC’s built heritage. These buildings have survived thus far for a reason, she said, and by preserving the history of the different groups who have passed through them, we are preserving our own history, too.

 

“When the [stained-glass ceiling] hits your eye…”

I wouldn’t exactly recommend Times Square as a hotbed of preservation architecture. (To be honest, beyond for the occasional caffeinating sojourn, I wouldn’t recommend it at all…jumbo crowds and jumbo trons don’t do a lot for me.) So last night, seeking pizza with my visiting family, I was not expecting the entryway (a skylit bar that apparently was once an alley) of John’s Pizzeria at West 44th and 8th Ave. to open up into the high, stained-glass ceiling of a late 19th-century, formerly abandoned church. This conversion (of the architectural, not religious, variety) by Andrew Tesoro Architects winds diners around a two-tiered balcony, overlooking a grand space that faces a cityscape mural. The side-by-side glows of brick ovens and half-round stained-glass windows are an unusual sight, and one that immerses hundreds of people in the potential of adaptive reuse as they eat beneath slices of lacy light.
Oh, and the pizza is delicious, too…roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, smoky thin crust…but that ceiling!