A local non-profit is fighting to save West-Park Presbyterian Church on 86th and Amsterdam, which we recently learned may be getting razed to make way for an apartment building.
The Center at West Park, a performing arts group based in the historic building, is asking for help to preserve the landmarked Romanesque style church it has called home for the last five years. The church is seeking its own demolition.
Labeled by the Landmarks Preservation Commission as “one of the best examples of a Romanesque Revival style religious structure in New York City,” the West Park Presbyterian Church has deep roots in the Upper West Side and citywide. It was founded in 1852 as the 84th Street Presbyterian Church and was located on 11th Avenue (today’s West End Avenue). It was the first Presbyterian congregation on the Upper West Side, 15 members strong.
By the 1880s, the congregation grew and, accordingly, outgrew its wood chapel constructed in 1854 by architect Leopold Eidlitz. The church purchased five lots at the northeast corner of West 86th and 10th Avenue (today’s Amsterdam Avenue) in 1883 and enlisted Eidlitz “to plan a brick, Victorian Gothic-style chapel on the eastern end of the site. The building was completed in 1885. The western end of the lot was left open for the future expansion of the church.”
Architect Henry Kilburn was hired by the newly renamed Park Presbyterian Church in 1889 to develop the western lots for a larger main church and to incorporate Eidlitz’s chapel design. The cornerstone was laid on May 16, 1889 after construction began about a month earlier. The church opened is doors on May 18, 1890.
“The West-Park Presbyterian Church was formed in 1911 when the Park Presbyterian Church merged with the West Presbyterian Church, which was founded in 1829 in Greenwich Village and later moved to 42nd Street. Kilburn’s design remains intact, and [the] building retains its visual prominence on the Upper West Side.”
The Current Struggle
Today’s total congregation stands at 12 people, and maintaining the church is not economically feasible for it. “The Church has nearly been bankrupted by its ownership of the deteriorating building, spending well over $1 million of its limited budget over the last decade and using loans from the Presbytery of New York to address emergency repairs,” a spokesperson for West-Park Presbyterian told ILTUWS.
The church plans to seek a hardship exemption from the Landmarks Preservation Commission on May 5 before appearing before Community Board 7 on June 1; this hardship exemption would reverse its landmark designation and allow the church’s demolition to begin.
Facing disbandment of its 12 congregants and the potential of having to sell the church “as is” with the landmark status intact, the congregation feels it has no choice but to plan for demolition with Alchemy Properties.
“The congregation needs a new plan to survive,” explained the spokesperson, who added that various experts were consulted to “evaluate different scenarios and find if they would provide a reasonable return following renovation and restoration of the building.” But “no such scenario exists.”
A mixed-use building would rise in place of the 133-year-old structure and the congregation would have 10,000 square feet of raw space to build out as it sees fit. But the future is uncertain for its primary tenant, The Center at West Park (CWP), even with the approval of a hardship.
“We would be without a space and would need to completely reinvent. It is very difficult to find spaces for artists in the city,” said Zachary Tomlinson, CWP’s Artistic Director, noting that most of its revenue comes from ticket sales and renting the space for various cultural events and efforts.
Those events and efforts have made the West 86th Street location a busy locale for the arts, thriving in fact. The space hosts approximately 100 different events throughout the year, has an artist in residence almost every week, and is the headquarters for the Broadway Bound Kids summer camp. CWP also rents the space to another Christian congregation on Sundays, noting that West-Park Presbyterian has not held any in-person services in over two years, and its only activity at the site is an open mic night on Fridays.
West-Park attributes its limited in-person presence to “ongoing unsafe building conditions at the Church and recent concerns related to the COVID pandemic [which] have led to the congregation relying on virtual meetings for services and Bible study.”
Tomlinson acknowledged that its landlord, West-Park Presbyterian, does not have the necessary financial resources to sustain the property long-term — but added that the church did not have them before the building was landmarked in 2010, and this deficit is the reason why the Center at West Park was founded.
“The Center was created because there was not a sufficient congregation,” according to Tomlinson. It was intended to be a long-term partnership, a joint effort with the local community and the congregation to fill a void in the neighborhood and to eventually raise enough money to restore the building.
CWP remains committed to that agreement and says it bears the church’s fiscal responsibilities. “We pay a modest rent, but we also put a lot of money into the property,” Tomlinson said. He says this includes paying for regular maintenance, cleaning, repairs, utilities, as well as electrical and boiler repairs and ongoing projects for fire and egress safety. He also tells us CWP replaced the community house roof (with the church) and a broken-down staircase.
The initial 2017 agreement between CWP and West Park Presbyterian was for one year. CWP later signed a five-year-lease with a right to renew. CWP attempted to exercise that right but the church disputed it, according to Tomlinson, leaving the cultural center worried for what the future holds for its patrons and artists who have come to rely on it.
Tomlinson says that it’s more than worry; it’s frustration, because he claims CWP would be able to financially sustain the property through the next five-year lease term and likely beyond.
West-Park Presbyterian disagrees and claims that CWP has not paid for major repairs and has defaulted on its lease. “The Center has not demonstrated the capacity both to be able to meet its current obligations to the Church and to raise the funds that would be needed to restore the building. Expert analysis of the building’s conditions estimate a need of $50 million in order to fully restore the immediate interior and exterior needs, and does not include ongoing maintenance.”
CWP is cognizant that a complete restoration is not in the cards immediately. But CWP reported that it has a beginning stage fund-raising campaign to achieve just that. Tomlinson estimates the total price tag between $20-25 million, versus West-Park’s estimate of $50 million. The sandstone façade needs to be restored. “That’s the biggest project.” The stone is wearing away and crumbling in dust or sand-sized bits. The roof over the sanctuary is the other big project.