Why New York City is trying to preserve a crumbling church
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Why New York City is trying to preserve a crumbling church
The congregation at Grace Congregational Church in Harlem during a service on Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021. The church wants to stay afloat by redeveloping its building, but a new historic district aimed at protecting Black culture now stands in its way. Stephanie Mei-Ling/The New York Times.

by Liam Stack

NEW YORK, NY.- Grace Congregational Church does not have many members these days, but the dozen or so people who do worship at the century-old building on a quiet Harlem side street like to get there early.

They climb the crumbling steps into the humble brick church and find seats on the aging wooden pews, where sheets of peeling paint hang like curtains from the water-damaged ceiling above their heads.

Grace Church has been a constant in their lives. It is a place where they have gotten married, christened their children, and where some of them were christened as children themselves.

But as the congregation has shrunk and the building has fallen into disrepair, members have dreamed up a vision for their future: a modern complex that combines a new church with dozens of affordable housing units.

“Churches just don’t survive anymore financially based on what comes in on Sunday,” said the Rev. Nigel Pearce, the church’s pastor. “Grace Church has a great history, but we need it to be transformed in order to survive.”

Church leaders say the plan, devised with a real estate developer, would help keep the church afloat for years to come and benefit struggling families who cannot pay Harlem’s rising rents. But an unexpected obstacle now stands in their way: a new historic district created by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission after neighbors lobbied for a way to celebrate and preserve the area’s Black history. The Dorrance Brooks Square Historic District is the first such district in the city named for an African American (Brooks was a Harlem native who died in battle during World War I).

Local preservationists say they also want to save Grace Church, but they view the demolition of the building as its death. The dispute strikes at fundamental questions about both preservation work and religious life. Is a church a building, or is it the group of people who worship there? Is it possible to preserve Harlem’s Black history while also investing in the future of its Black residents?

To tear down and redevelop Grace Church, its leaders must now get approval from the Landmarks Commission — an onerous and perhaps impossible effort on which its financial survival depends.

“The problem is I am trying to save the congregation and the Landmark Commission is trying to save the building and we need to figure out how we do both,” said the pastor.

Black artists like singer Marian Anderson and composer Duke Ellington once sat in Grace Church’s pews, earning it nicknames like “the Church of the Actors” and “the Harlem Opera House,” Pearce said. Its former organist, Sylvia Olden Lee, performed at the White House for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was the first African American accompanist to work at the Metropolitan Opera, said Peter Clark, the director of the opera’s archives.

Through the years, the congregation dwindled, and since March 2020 it has suffered a steep decline, Pearce said. Before the pandemic, its Sunday crowd size averaged between 75 and 100 people, but only a handful of mostly older congregants regularly attend now.

The state of its building on 139th Street reflects the downturn. Extreme weather from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 damaged the roof, the repair of which insurance would not cover, and now water damage marks creep down the walls of the sanctuary.

Some rooms are unusable: the smell of mildew haunts its back offices, mold is visible on the ceiling of the basement community hall, and the ceiling in the choir room has partially collapsed, covering furniture and a drum set in dust and debris.

“They want to add us to the historical record because this church is historical,” said Barbara Fennell, 80, a 30-year member of the church. “Unfortunately, this is how the church is now.”

Alethia West, 90, the chair of the church’s board of trustees, agreed.

“The landmark people are a little late,” she said, gesturing to the damaged sanctuary ceiling. “What is there left here to preserve?”

Grace Church’s declining membership and crumbling facilities are not unique, nor is its desire to benefit from rising property values. According to a study by the Office of the Manhattan Borough President, 907 parcels of land in the borough were designated for religious use in 2020, a number that dropped from 976 in 2010.

Several churches in Harlem have been sold to developers in recent years, including Mount Calvary United Methodist Church, which sits near Grace Church and whose 2017 sale inspired the campaign to create the historic district, said Keith Taylor, the president of the Dorrance Brooks Property Owners & Residents Association.

“We’ve been very concerned about the loss of our churches,” he said. “Some of them go for market rate housing, some of them for affordable housing. But all of them destroy the nature and the integrity of our neighborhoods.”

Taylor, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a longtime member of the community board, has deep roots in Harlem.

His great-grandfather, Reginald King, settled there after he emigrated from Barbados in 1905, he said. And a relative, Herbert Bruce, was the first Black Tammany Hall District leader in New York City after he won an election to lead a local Democratic club in the 1930s. His personal papers are archived at the New York Public Library.

Taylor said he was wary of the role of developers as saviors of Harlem’s troubled churches.

“They’re looking at the loss of members. They’re looking at financial oblivion. And there’s someone just coming in and saying, ‘I can save you,’” he said. “That’s exactly what the pattern is.”

Pearce said Grace Church partnered with a developer, Sackman Enterprises, in 2017. Their plan calls for demolishing the church and one of two neighboring brownstones it owns and uses to provide eight affordable housing units, where floor through apartments have been rented for around $1,200 a month.

In their place would rise a boxy seven-story building with a church on the lower floors and 34 affordable housing units above, the pastor said. Their price structures have yet to be determined.

Under the terms of the deal, Grace would own the first two floors of the building and 51% of the residential floors, which would entitle it to 51% of the rental income. The developer would own the remainder, the pastor said.

But Alan Sackman, the founder of the development company, said he considered the plan to be “a dead project.” He said the onus for convincing the Landmarks Commission to approve it falls on Pearce.

“We’ll see how things work out,” he said. “If Nigel can get Landmarks to give him a carve out then we would be happy to build him his church.”

If the deal does not go through, the church faces near certain ruin because it has spent $1 million on “predevelopment costs” like buying out its brownstone tenants and commissioning building plans, the pastor said. It received that money “as an advance” from Sackman and must pay it back if the deal falls through, he said.

“We are a church that cannot afford to spend $1 million,” he said. “We are on the edge of destruction, frankly, if we are not able to go through with our plans.”

Sackman said the debt could be repaid with funds raised by the sale of one of the church’s now-empty brownstones. He wants to break even at Grace Church and views the project as a “philanthropic” work, he said.

“I’m not getting rich off this deal,” Sackman said. “I’m a pretty successful guy. And I’m old. I’m 82 years old. So you look back on your life and you reflect. I do a lot of things for charity. I think that’s what successful people do.”

Before their leases were bought out, the church’s brownstone tenants had not paid rent for months, so for a while now, the cost of maintaining Grace has fallen on its members. The church has an annual budget of $300,000 but its collection income now averages $4,000 to $5,000 a month, making it dependent on the generosity of trustees who make large donations, the pastor said.

Many worshippers at Grace Church said they saw the development plan as not just a financial lifeline, but also as a chance to honor the spirit of the activists and artists who came before them.

“I think they would vote for something that helps the community,” said Debra Jackson-Whyte, a deacon. “Church is supposed to be about community service.”

Pearce said he asked the landmarks commission to remove Grace Church from the district. The commission noted that request before its public vote to create the district on June 15, but the pastor said he has yet to receive an answer.

Zodet Negron, a spokesperson for the commission, said that once a historic district has been made official, its properties cannot simply apply for exemption; there is a process to follow.

She said Grace Church must submit an application for its development project to the commission, which would then hold public hearings on the plan. But the church has not yet done so. The commission must approve the demolition of the buildings as well as the design of any new structures, she said.

In recent weeks, Pearce has begun lobbying local elected officials to advocate for the church to commissioners. In response, neighborhood preservationists — including Taylor, himself an elected official as a community board member — said they have lobbied the same officials to protect the church building.

“The whole thing weighs very heavy on my heart because I don’t want to see the neighborhood be destroyed, but I also understand that people need to be able to exist,” Taylor said. “That’s part of the whole idea: Preserving not just the buildings, but the community itself.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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