Middle Collegiate Church nears time for demolition of its historic facade

(RNS) — Middle Collegiate Church, the New York City congregation whose historic building suffered a devastating fire nearly three years ago, has received permission to remove the heavily damaged remnant of its 19th-century neo-Gothic façade.

The Rev. Jacqui Lewis, who leads the multiethnic church in Manhattan’s East Village, said the pending work is a mixture of “good news” and renewed grief about the loss of the building that was completed in 1892.

“All of us are going to have a revisitation of our sorrow,” she said in a Monday (Oct. 30) interview. “The façade looks like it survived but it really didn’t. There will be a new grief, I think, around that.”

The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission found that “the overall loss of historic fabric due to the fire, structural issues, damaged masonry, and woodwork, and the partial deconstruction required to make the site safe, will result in a building that no longer retains its own integrity as a building that contributes to the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District.”

After endorsing a “certificate of appropriateness” in January, the commission issued a related permit on Sept. 19 that was contingent on other city approvals. On Tuesday, the city’s Department of Buildings “issued a permit to the general contractor for the project, for the use of heavy machinery to perform the demolition work,” said Andrew Rudansky, the department’s press secretary.

Firefighters work to extinguish a fire that erupted from the building next to Middle Collegiate Church on Dec. 5, 2020, in New York. The historic 19th-century church in lower Manhattan was gutted by a massive fire that sent flames shooting through the roof. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

Lewis said she hoped the demolition could begin in early November and estimated it could last a couple of months.

RELATED: Middle Collegiate Church expects historic façade to be demolished by spring 

Some preservationist groups had expressed concern about the removal of the façade. Lower East Side Preservation Initiative, a local not-for-profit group, had said the demolition would hurt the “special character of this very important historic district.”

Andrew Berman, executive director of Village Preservation, told The Village Sun, an online publication, in January that the commission’s decision to grant the church’s request “may open the door to more demolitions and much less desirable uses than a new home for a church at this location and other landmarked sites.”

Lewis responded at the time that the church determined to rebuild a worship building on the same site. Negotiations with city officials took months longer than expected, she said this week.

The Rev. Jacqui Lewis. Photo by Béatrice de Géa

The Rev. Jacqui Lewis. Photo by Béatrice de Géa

Part of the plan agreed to with the city includes efforts to save some of the limestone and ironwork of the building to use in the new sanctuary that is the eventual focus of a fundraising campaign.

“We tried to save a couple of ornamental pieces that we hope we can repurpose in the new building,” Lewis said.

With the demolition approved, Middle Church, which is dually aligned with the Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ, has two more phases of planning.

Lewis said she hopes the church’s five-story townhouse next door to the church, which was damaged by water sprayed at the church by firefighters, can be renovated to house a temporary worship space by December 2024. Since the fire, Middle Collegiate’s 120 to 170 in-person worshippers have been meeting at East End Temple, a Reform synagogue 10 blocks away.

The townhouse property, Lewis said, “would be incorporated into the larger footprint of a neighborhood assembly space that we would worship in on Sunday but that the community can use for concerts or town hall gatherings.”

In a third phase, Lewis added, the church would seek to build a permanent sanctuary in partnership with another organization that is interested in also using the site for affordable housing or some other social-service-oriented mission. The landmarks commission noted in its permit that it will work with the church on the planned redesign of a new building.

Lewis estimates that it will cost $35 million to $40 million to complete all three stages of the church’s plans. She said $6 million of a $15 million fundraising campaign has already been collected.

The cordoned off façade of Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan's East Village in New York City. (Image courtesy Google Maps)

The cordoned-off façade of Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan’s East Village in New York City. (Image courtesy Google Maps)

Middle Church is one of four Collegiate Churches of New York that sprung from a 17th-century Reformed Church congregation when New York was still New Amsterdam and that are considered the oldest continuously practicing Protestant congregations in the Americas. Its companion churches are the Marble Collegiate Church, where Norman Vincent Peale was pastor; the West End Church; and the Fort Washington Church.

Lewis expects the congregation will mark the demolition with a time of prayer and song before it occurs.

“Our congregation will be making a journey to the site on December 4,” she added, “as we commemorate the third anniversary of the fire that destroyed our sacred space.”

RELATED: Historic façade must go, Middle Collegiate Church tells New York landmarks commission

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