The fate of the church, located at 165 West 86th Street, now rests with the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), a group that’ll meet again on Tuesday to further deliberate on the hardship application filed by the church with a 12-member congregation.
If approved, the 141-year-old Romanesque Revival church made of brown and red carved sandstone would get demolished to make way for a mixed-use high-rise apartment building by real estate company Alchemy Properties. The new space would include a new 146-seat black box theater that would also accommodate the church’s small congregation.
Vivacious jazz music filled the air during Saturday’s rally, exemplifying the perfect pitch the space has become famous for, as light poured in through the stained-glass windows. “I happen to be the new kid on the block,” detailed Debby Hirshman, the recently appointed Executive Director of The Center at West Park. Hirshman was hailed for her leadership and vision in getting the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan built on Amsterdam Avenue at 76th Street before being asked to step down in 2003. Hirshman said she was grateful to partner with everyone in attendance to ensure the sanctuary would stay a sacred space for the arts, social justice and social responsibility for generations to come, as it was intended when it was landmarked in 2010.
Then, Rev. Dr. Derrick McQueen asked the audience to feel the energy of the ancestors that were in the room. “Yes, I go to church on Sunday,” preached Rev. McQueen. “And I go to church very often. But I also know that the power of the arts speaks to the spirit to do the same things that bring you close to the divine in your city and experience it with the fullness of who you are. This building brings that out. This landmark deserves not to be demolished.”
West-Park Presbyterian Church has long been a beacon for the arts and progressive social causes. In 1978, the church began openly welcoming LGBTQ+ members as part of the More Light Movement. The Shakespeare Center and the renowned Riverside Shakespeare Company called West-Park home from 1980-1985. Then from 1987 to 1991, God’s Love We Deliver used West Park’s kitchen to serve upwards of 250 meals per day to people living with AIDS. Since 2016, it has served as the home of the Center at West Park, a nonprofit community performing arts center. It’s also home to the Russian Arts Theater & Studio and an active house of worship for the Lighthouse Chapel International.
“First time I came here, the first thing that came out my mouth was ‘this is a sacred space,’” shared Mark Ruffalo. The You Can Count on Me actor also mentioned that Mayor Eric Adams has joined the fight to save the church from the wrecking ball. “We got to thank the mayor. Thank you, mayor. Thank you. But I promise you this, this fight will continue. Okay. There is no one person that is going to save us or this church. We’ll continue. It’s us. Just like it’s always been. We have to fight together.” Ruffalo called it a new day for the church with Debby Hirshman as the new executive director of the Center at West Park. “She has a vision for the JCC. She raised $95 million for a building that didn’t even exist… Imagine what she could do with this place.”
In New York City history, 19 hardship applications have been filed since the Landmarks Law was passed in 1965. In that time, 13 applications have been granted. Michael Hiller, who serves as legal counsel for The Center at West Park, advised everyone in attendance to show up and testify at the Landmarks Preservation Commission Zoom hearing on Tuesday at 2 p.m.
In August 2022, we reported that the church filed a lawsuit trying to evict The Center at West Park for failing to uphold its obligation under its below-market rent lease. Hiller and The Center refuted the claims and the case is still pending. It was around this time when the Landmarks Preservation Commission tapped an outside expert to determine the costs surrounding the building’s decay as the two sides have made wildly different estimates.
During a May 2022 press conference, Hiller’s estimates for building renovations ranged from $10 to $20 million, while Roger Leaf, chair of West-Park Presbyterian Church’s Administrative Commission, had arrived at over $50 million. Leaf told us, “The Landmarks Conservancy did a study of the building 11 years ago. Just the façade came to $14.6 million. That’s about $18.5 million in today’s dollars.” Leaf went on to say, “Conditions have only gotten worse.” In June, Community Board 7 voted to keep landmark status for the church in an advisory role to the Landmarks Preservation Committee.
After praising Mark Ruffalo as the reason why fracking is banned in New York State, City Council Member Gale Brewer said the church has not demonstrated the financial hardship necessary by Landmarks law. Brewer, who was instrumental in the church getting landmark status in 2010, called the move a “money grab” by the church.
Long time Upper West Sider (now in Brooklyn) Amy Schumer also called to “keep fighting the good fight,” during a quick stage appearance.
But it was Wendell Pierce – also an Upper West Sider, and a Juilliard graduate – who brought the room to a standing ovation with his story about growing up in New Orleans, Louisiana. Pierce hailed New Orleans as the northernmost Caribbean City and the birthplace of Jazz, but hallowed ground where Louis Armstrong and other legends lived and played are now gone due to political corruption.
After the rally, the crowd emptied into the street where members of the press asked more questions of those in attendance. Mark Ruffalo took on all questions and some photo requests from fans as well.