Saturday, July 17, 2010


The conflict between preservationists and the Russian Orthodox Church on 2nd Street, the history of duplicity and distrust aside, comes down to two simple issues:

1) the church cannot guarantee that they can preserve the building in perpetuity (the congregation and administration might change in ten or twenty years -- it could fold entirely),

2) the preservationists cannot guarantee help with the burden of effort and financial expense implied in landmarking.

There is no question that landmarking is a burden to the owner: repairs to the façade require approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission in addition to any normal Department of Buildings permits. Those approvals require applications and, in some cases, hearings. The Landmarks Commission receives several thousand applications each year, each must be treated individually. The Commission is underfunded. Applications can take time, and complex applications may not be clearly understood by a strapped and overworked commission. Where there is ongoing damage, say, water damage, delay for approval may occasion irreparable damage meanwhile. A simple air conditioning system could be prohibitively expensive, if LPC won't allow the units face the street where they are most convenient.

Both the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Landmarks Conservancy offer grants to relieve the burden. Preservationists urge that landmarking should be viewed as an opportunity for the church.

But LPC grants would not be applicable to the church. LPC grants are intended for restoration of seriously degenerated façades. But the church façade, as it happens, stands in almost pristine state.

The Conservancy's Sacred Sites grants offer more:

"Priority will be given to essential repairs to the primary worship building. Highest consideration is given to projects such as roofing and drainage system repairs, masonry repointing and restoration, structural repairs, and stained glass window repair and restoration. The Sacred Sites Fund also provides grants for professional services, including conditions surveys, plans and specifications, project management, engineering reports, stained glass surveys, and laboratory testing of materials and finishes. Sacred Sites grants may be considered for barrier-free access construction, if it is done in conjunction with a larger preservation project. Grants cannot be used for pipe organ restoration, interior work, mechanical upgrades, or routine maintenance.

"Grants will not be considered for work that has been started or completed at the time of the application.

"The maximum grant amount for the Sacred Sites Fund is $10,000. In the most recent, January 2010 grant round, Sacred Sites grants averaged about $3,000, and we project similar grant averages through 2011. No grant shall exceed half the project cost."

The church would still need assistance with the effort of applications. Sometimes a simple application to succeed can require community and political support. That takes organizing, writing, meeting, as well as grant-writing and researching. The existing administration may not have time to devote to those efforts and the work of ministering to the congregation, and may require the additional financial burden of hiring someone just to handle the landmark burdens.

And financial grants do not mitigate the sheer length of the application process to remediate an ongoing problem.

Landmarks are routinely designated in opposition to the owner. My sense is that if the community preservationists pursue this designation, it will succeed. Few buildings in this neighborhood are as eminently landmarkable as the church building: designed by a significant architect (he built the original Natural History Museum, the stone south side of which can still be seen), an attractive building, an almost unchanged façade, an unusual example of Richardsonian design in a church, and a significant social history in the neighborhood.

If the preservationists could commit financially to the church and commit to helping with applications, the conflict might be partially resolved. Maybe that should be the goal of the mediation to which both sides have agreed. But how can preservationists be bound to any agreement to commit? All in all, it looks like the church is going to have to endure an additional burden and hope that it can thrive despite.

There is a lesson in it all: preservationists would not have pursued this particular building were it not that the church proposed and considered an eight-story condo expansion above the building. The lesson cuts both ways: if you own a historic and architecturally significant structure, either treat it with respect and not draw attention of preservationists, or illegally demolish it before anyone ever knows.

For all the finger pointing towards the church, at least they didn't try the latter. Many others have.


Anonymous said...

This blog's series of facts without the emotional gossip(which have prevented reasonable dialogue on the mutual goal of preserving the 2nd Street Cathedral’s facade) are refreshing. Thank you for this very balanced and fair account.

While the church’s elected council (yes, they are very organized within) had listened to an architect’s proposal to construct wheel chair ramps, apartments and additional office space in the back of the building, the project was rejected by decision of the church before the LPC became involved. The church was naïve to entertain ideas of growth in this manner, but since that time, zoning laws have changed in the neighborhood so that future construction is not possible above the site.

Still, there’s a continued push by the LPC to overtake the church and legislate the church’s façade. According to one advocate at last week's meeting, the LPC wants to add to its “inventory of buildings we have collected” on the Lower East Side, so that the building remains “frozen in time.” These are very different goals than the Cathedral community, which wants to preserve its beautiful building for the sake of the spiritual services within.

Historically and currently, the pristine façade has been preserved with church member donations. Hand rails were installed and updated, and the outside icons are switched out periodically. A neon cross was installed in the 1970s above the doorway (which I think is hideous). With landmark status, replacing handrails or removing the neon cross (not to mention time-sensitive structural repairs) might require months or years of legal filings and solicitations for approval from the LPC. It is indeed ironic that the bureaucracy surrounding the LPC makes maintaining its landmarks infinitely more difficult, but the problems are described in excellent detail by this blog.

The LPC has dangled the idea of “a windfall of grant money” in front of the church’s elected council. These grants are not guaranteed, and in fact, $3-$10,000 would make little dent in most historical renovation projects. Much of the work done on the Cathedral to date, such as the recently repainted handrails, has been lovingly handled by parishioners, not approved contractors. The financial burden of proving historical integrity would more than offset the possibility of these small grants.

It is true that hundreds of hours and millions of dollars have been spent by the church to maintain its pristine beauty. One only needs to walk up to the cathedral, enter inside and absorb its resonance to feel this worth. But all of the time and money required to care for this building came from the community, not from the well-intentioned advocates and preservationists affiliated with the LPC.

R.A. Wright

Anonymous said...

Thanks to gentrification, the folks who live in this church's neighborhood have never been richer. If the church addressed these people's needs then the church would have a larger, richer congregation than has ever been possible.

But the church's congregation is shrinking, because its leaders would rather do the easier, same-old than do the hard work of growth in its community. I'd bet that most of its members no longer live within blocks of the church.

If the church were on a desserted island, its members could do what they want. But it's not. The church is in a community of many others. So, just as the church would have a problem if their neighbors started putting devil-worship idols on every wall on the block, their neighbors should have a role in whatever the church wants to do to its exterior.

They can do whatever they want inside, but when it comes to exteriors that the rest of us have to deal with, then it's a community issue that all sides must come together on.