Tuesday, March 18, 2008


St. Michael's Church: 28 Years of Landmarks Purgatory

This morning's public hearing on the potential landmark designation of St.Michael's Church, Parish House and Rectory raised hopes that 28 years of landmarks limbo may soon end for this remarkable religious complex on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 99th Street on the Upper West Side. The 1891 limestone ensemble (largely designed by Robert W. Gibson, with exquisitestained-glass windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany) was last heard by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) in 1980.

A public hearing is always a positive step. Thanks so much to everyone whowas able to be there in person. The LPC did not vote at today's hearing but informs us that the record on St. Michael's is now closed. Still, this is an opportunity to make your voice heard on the broader need for action to preserve New York City's historic places of worship. Is there a historic church, synagogue or other religious institution in your community that needs to be preserved but doesn't yet have landmark status? Here's your hook! You can support St. Michael's (see below LPC statement of significance and LANDMARK WEST's testimony below; to read other letters of support, click here and at the same time point out that there's a bigger picture by naming other religious sites that also deserve attention from the LPC.

Join us in urging the LPC to end the tear-down trend that robs our city of its historic houses of worship!

Hon. Robert B. Tierney, Chair
NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission
1 Centre Street, 9th FloorNew York, NY 10007
Phone: 212-669-7888
Fax: 212-669-7955

Hon. Melissa Mark Viverito
NYC Council Member (for the district in which St. Michael's is located)
105 E. 116th Street New York, NY 10029
Phone: 212-828-9800
Fax: 212-722-6378

Hon. Jessica Lappin
NYC Council Member Chair, Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses
336 East 73rd Street (Suite C) New York, NY 10021
Phone: 212 535-5554
Fax: 212-535-6098

Please cc. landmarkwest@landmarkwest.org.

Landmarks Preservation Commission Public Hearing On
Proposed Designation of St. Michael's Church, Parish House and Rectory
201-255 West 99th Street (aka 800-812 Amsterdam Avenue and 227 West 99th Street)
March 18, 2008

It gives us great pleasure to be here today to testify emphatically in favor of officially designating St. Michael's Church, Parish House and Rectory as a Landmark, at long last.

Twenty-eight years have passed since St. Michael's was first heard for potential landmark designation (in 1980). LANDMARK WEST! included St.Michael's on its Wish List of priority designations nearly 25 years ago-along time, too long, for any building to hang in limbo, its value and significance known but its future unsecured.

And yet there is tremendous urgency to protect this building now. First of all, St. Michael's is without question one of New York's most remarkable architectural ensembles. This gleaming-white limestone church,with its commanding corner tower, red terra-cotta tile roof and Romanesque-arched windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany, together with its adjacent parish house and rectory, is already a "landmark" on the Amsterdam Avenue skyline. And the architect of St. Michael's, Robert W. Gibson, is justly celebrated for other landmarks he designed, including West End Collegiate Church and School (West End Avenue at 77th Street).

Without diminishing the special significance of St. Michael's, one can also compare it to West-Park Presbyterian Church at 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue and, a few blocks further south, Holy Trinity Church at 82nd Street near Amsterdam and First Baptist Church at 79th Street and Broadway (each was left out of the Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District when it was designated in 1990 in response to owner objections). Or, even farther afield, St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Harlem. All are beacons in their communities, anchoring prominent sites and establishing a sense of place, time and scale for the surrounding neighborhood. All physically embody the dreams and aspirations of their founders, who often made personal sacrifices in order to create a public monument to faith, beauty and community. Each offers a unique window into the history of our city and the cultural memory of its people.

The caretakers of St. Michael's have kept vigilant watch over this beacon and lovingly preserved it. Landmark designation is an important validation of their labors and a crucial tool for safeguarding their investment for generations to come.

Their investment and ours. After all, the public assumes an extra tax burden so that religious institutions may freely pursue their good works.When a congregation maintains and preserves its building, it honors its social contract with the community. And because landmark designation is a key mechanism for making sure that promises of preservation and sensitive improvement are actually kept, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has a special responsibility to identify and protect historic houses of worship.

Unfortunately, the Commission has too often assumed a "hands off" approach,leaving these sites vulnerable to insensitive development that not onlydestroys the structure itself, but diminishes community character and,frequently, weakens the congregation. All of the sites previouslymentioned-plus many, many others in all five boroughs-are in immediatejeopardy as a direct result of the Commission's failure to live up to itsmandate and indeed its proven potential as an agent for revitalization.

In a compelling list of success stories, landmark designation is part of the formula for sustaining the vitality of religious sites-Eldridge StreetSynagogue on the Lower East Side, St. Bartholomew's on Park Avenue, the First and Second Churches of Christ Scientist on Central Park West. In how many cases does the replacement of a religious institution with a residential high-rise or office building ensure a congregation's survival or otherwise contribute to the cultural life of a community? Name one example.

We urge the Commission to designate St. Michael's Church, Parish House and Rectory, thus releasing it from 28 years of landmarks purgatory. We also urge the Commission to step up to its important role in ending the tear-down trend that robs neighborhoods of our historic houses of worship.

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