Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Middle Collegiate Church seeks permission to demolish the remaining façade of its fire-damaged structure on 2nd Avenue

This morning, reps for Middle Collegiate Church will appear before the Landmarks Preservation Commission to seek approval to demolish what's left of the fire-damaged façade at 122 Second Ave. between Sixth Street and Seventh Street. (Find meeting details here. There is a livestream via the LPC's YouTube channel.)

In a 46-page report (PDF here), presented jointly by several architectural and engineering firms, church leaders say they must remove what remains on the property that lies within the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District. According to the report, the culmination of a review over 18 months, there is too much damage to the existing structure to integrate it into Middle Collegiate's new home, that it wouldn't withstand a full-scale rebuild on the property.

"This makes me feel heartbroken"

During a phone call last week with EVG, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, senior minister at the Middle Collegiate Church, said they spent $4 million to reinforce, stabilize and weatherproof the façade in the months after the fire.

"The six-alarm fire was devastating, and the façade was badly damaged. But when something like that survives, you think, 'Well, OK — it's telling us that the structure is good and strong,'" Lewis said. "We love our church."

She said that despite these efforts, the façade has deteriorated over time. And then, their engineering report showed that it would be best to remove what was left before building a new church.

"It felt like something died," Lewis said of hearing this news. "The building burning felt like a death — a big death.  This makes me feel heartbroken. It feels like a second loss. But if we let it go, we could get back on site, get back in the space and build something."

She now wants to focus on working with the Landmarks Preservation Commission to build something appropriate that honors their history and gives Middle Church a ministry for the 22nd Century in the East Village — and not in a new location in another neighborhood.

We've talked with several residents who expressed disappointment that the remains — with approval — would need to come down. Residents said that the bell tower was a sign of resilience for the neighborhood.

"We're disappointed too. And [the remaining façade] is a sign of resilience," she said. "It is a symbol that this fire couldn't conquer the building."

Disappointment aside, there is also opposition to the request for demolition.

The Village Preservation is urging the Landmarks Preservation Commission not to grant permission for demolition — at least for now.

According to Village Preservation:
We don’t believe there is sufficient documentation that alternatives to preserve the historic façade have been fully explored, nor that there is sufficient evidence at this time to justify the permanent and irreversible removal. 

We are calling for further examination and documentation before such a decision would be appropriate to render. We want to see the church rebuild and flourish at this location, and know that they have been through incredible hardship. But we also believe that this process must be extremely carefully considered, to ensure unchangeable decisions that could have been avoided are not made, and harmful precedents are not set for allowing demolition of historically significant structures without reasonable and achievable proof of the necessity of doing so. 

In addition, Richard Moses, president of the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative, released this statement: "We're sympathetic to the very real challenges the congregation faces here. But this building has been a beacon for the neighborhood for over 100 years. It's one of the most important sites in the historic district. We just want to make sure that the Landmarks Commissioners have the best information and all the options spelled out before deciding on the building’s fate." 

Lewis said that she understands the opposition. She has also seen a report from an engineer hired by the Landmarks Preservation Commission who paid two recent visits to the site. That report states that the structure is stable.

"We relive the fire daily and try to think about what to do with it. It's that kind of grief that just keeps coming in waves," Lewis said. "At some point, two years in, I want to be able to say to my community: We did the very best we could with this. This is not a willy-nilly, hurry-up decision. The engineer says we can't keep it, and we're heartbroken."


You can read more about the Middle Church Rising campaign here.

Previously on EV Grieve:


Anonymous said...

Of course the development interests want to knock it down and start from scratch, more money in it that way for a complete fresh design.

Anonymous said...

I am a long term resident here and cannot believe its been two years since this happened. What a horrible loss for our neighborhood. The facade of this is absolutely stunning, however; I understand the need to demolish it as well. My first concern is the large structure itself. If it is not properly preserved, it could come down possibly and ruin its replacement right next to it in the other lot. And considering this is NYC, an open space means a loss of wealth and/or revenue from a new property that could be placed there. Unless it is kept as a monument, I just don't see how it can remain.

Anonymous said...

Out of all of the technology and engineering brain we have on this planet, it’s astonishing they can’t save some piece of it.

DaHo said...

Heartbreaking. The EV is losing way too many landmarks. There’s a quiet beauty there I was hoping could be saved.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely heartbreaking. And still, two years after the fire, I have yet to hear a single word from Faith Popcorn apologizing for robbing the neighborhood of this 120 year old source of beauty, faith and support.

Brian Van said...

Village Preservation's position amounts to harassment. "We're looking for more documentation" is a delay tactic. They understand full well that the church organization has already spent an exorbitant amount of money to stabilize the facade thus far, that there is no motive here for out-of-place redevelopment, that no one is providing the money for additional timely "exploration" or "evidence", and that stone masonry facades usually have to come down after an intense fire in the main structure.

The heartbreaking part is that Middle Collegiate didn't plan for any of this to happen and they just want to move on. Village Preservation would rather they not do that. To them, the bell tower and the front portal matter more than the community.

Note that the remaining stonework is vulnerable not just to the elements but to future Phase 3 Second Ave. subway construction. If engineers are concerned about rebuilding around the facade for excavation of the lot for a new building, the subway tunneling will probably be worse for it. Or will VP argue at some point we can't build the long-delayed subway over this?

Neighbor said...

If the Village Preservation gets their way of requiring more work I hope they pay for it. It's not like the church is doing this without work/thought. There is a 46 page report from multiple engineering firms. Village Preservation pushing to throw up more issues is a perfect example of just creating costs but not actually having to incur them.

Anonymous said...

The church needs to demolish the severely fire-damaged facade so that rebuilding can begin. This is not about “development interests” but about a congregation (including me) that wants to return to its historic home. I loved our old building — but it’s gone. Prioritizing shreds of stonework over the vitality of the church itself is wrong. I’ve been watching the Landmarks hearing and the church’s engineers and architects detailed the fundamental damage to the remaining stonework and the impossibility of safely moving forward under the current conditions.

Anonymous said...

Sadly tear it down and let the congregants who have suffered move on. Enough with the boogey man when we hear the word development. At lot of times yes, but not this time.

Anonymous said...

Village Preservation clearly lives in some fantasy world. Do they think "more documentation" will stabilize the structure? It's a great way to sabotage the finances of this church with the result being exactly the same, just delayed. Great work, everyone.

Brian Van said...

Anonymous 11:34 AM:

That's the other thing. Is it worth killing a construction worker to take the risk of keeping the facade as the door to the new building? Does VP have substantive engineering rebuttals to demonstrate that it would not be a problem? Would they be willing to offer insurance or pay for additional shoring work?

Or... are they just openly speculating something they have no idea about, in order to get the city to force MC to get a second (or third or fourth) opinion? Are they willing to risk a mid-construction collapse because the bell tower is THAT important?

All that said, given where we are at, I'd rather any money at this point be put into rebuilding a similar portal to the new building. It would be expensive, and maybe not precisely the same, but the hope is for engineers not to make the new building look like a dull lump from 2nd Ave. And the longer this goes on, the less money they'll have for visual improvements.

Anonymous said...

Note: If the commission greenlights a tear down, the Church officials might get a better price if they later decide to sell to an investor interested in the commercial potential. Recently buildings such as a nursing home, boy scout club, community center were sold and repurpoaed.

Anonymous said...

Recall that NYU (or its developer) preserved the façade of St. Ann's Church on 12th St. between 4th & 3rd Avenues, while it built that ghastly bland dorm building directly behind it.

I would wish for a solution that SAVES the façade of the Collegiate Church - it would be such a shame to lose the majesty, beauty & history of that building entirely.

And for all the super-rich people in NYC, doesn't ANYONE with a connection to the Collegiate churches (there are several in NYC) have an "in" with someone (or several someones) who could easily afford to donate a large sum of money to the preservation of the façade & the building of a new interior?

I sincerely hope someone with very deep pockets will step forward in generosity to allow this beautiful church to be re-built using the same façade it has had all these years.

Gwen Deely said...

Agree 100%

Anonymous said...

@Brian Van: Of ALL the arguments that could be made to tear down this beautiful church frontage, the WEAKEST and the WORST is anything to do with the Second Avenue Subway!

I was already living here in the early 1970's when they TORE UP 2nd Avenue from 14th St. down to about 11th St. to put in the tunnel & basic concrete roadbed & platforms for the "soon to come" 14th St. stop on the Second Avenue Subway - and you can see how far along that has gotten in FIFTY YEARS! The concrete is probably no good any more, for all I know.

But I can tell you this: if you imagine that you'll see the Second Avenue Subway extended to THIS area in YOUR lifetime, you're dreaming an unrealistic dream. (BTW: Also note that NYC has long ago said its priority for extending the Second Avenue Subway would be to go NORTHWARD to 110th St.)

OlympiasEpiriot said...

To Anon at 9:09 am: there are no "development interests". There is just a congregation -- a very busy one if you look at their website or ever went there -- that wants to have a physical home again to worship and continue all their work. This church is a big part of the neighborhood, serving and supporting lots of groups, not just ones who specifically go there for religious reasons.

I, too, really miss the building. I feel exceptionally lucky to have spent time inside it on multiple occasions, for free, surrounded by the beautiful woodwork and the stained glass windows from Tiffany Studios. I am also an engineer and I like to say when people ask me if something "can" be done is that nearly everything can be done, it is just a question of how much money one can throw at it and what the schedule is.

They have already spent millions stabilizing what is there. From the start, they were intending to incorporate the remnants of the facade. But, like the sunday school song says, "the church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people".

I receive the Village Preservation newsletters and I have to say I'm really annoyed about this campaign of theirs. This isn't a LLC or a corporation trying to oust anyone. There may be members of VP who are personally supporting the fundraising for the repairs of Middle Collegiate. They may also be pressuring the owners (of whom Faith Popcorn is one, as Anon at 9:57 wrote) of 48 East 7th to donate. I have no idea. But, if they really want more studies, then at this point, I think the people who are pushing for them need to provide the resources for it AND donate for the actual reconstruction.

Note, too, that the longer that facade remnant is standing alone, the more it will degrade.

By the way, if it will allay Brian Van's concerns at all, any work done for the 2nd Ave subway will include protection of adjacent structures. A landmarked building or facade gets a lot of attention in this regard. Yes, damage can occur, but, the goal is to protect all adjacent properties. (I could go into lots of detail, this is not the place.)

XTC said...

While I'm always happy to see houses of worship, rather, houses of mental slavery demolished it would be no great feat of engineering to preserve the facade which has a weird kind of elegance to it. Agree that thing on 12 St is an abomination but there are examples the world over fusing these old structures to modern new ones. With the right architect this could be quite a spectacular site for a something special- community center, art space, tech hub, housing all in one go.

Anonymous said...

@XTC: IF this could be preserved, it would be as a CHURCH.

And, despite your animosity, most churches ARE "something special" - most churches do in fact serve also as community centers, art spaces, meeting spaces for AA and NA and other groups, and they often provide meals and housing for the homeless. They do a ton more than your "I hate religion" mind can comprehend.

Anonymous said...

I agree. What replaces the older buildings tends to be without personality, ofyen ugly and would never withstand time... fire or not. I am heartbroken seeing this.

Anon said...

(This is OlympiasEpiriot, Google is being weird and I had to actually log in and then it's calling me "Anon".)

For those on here who are in support of incorporation of the remnants of the facade into the new building, I want to say that I agree from an aesthetic and nostalgic point of view; but, have you looked at the photos?

Please take a look at slides 11 through 19 in the presentation Middle Collegiate submitted: https://www.nyc.gov/assets/lpc/downloads/pdf/presentation-materials/20221122/112-Second-Avenue.pdf

Note that this is a limestone facade. Under heat, limestone turns into quicklime, which can be used to make mortar and cement -- and definitely breaks the chunks of limestone down. (However, normally when that is being done, it is in a kiln and the temperature is controlled, however primitively. In an open fire like this, it is uncontrolled and a lot of damage occurred...which is an understatement. Not that quicklime would allow these blocks to have stayed intact...)
Look at the section loss on those finials and the quoins, for example. Saving this would be a lot of work...a LOT. It is definitely a loss, but, the various costs have to be weighed.

As much of a tragedy as this loss is to our neighborhood architecture, remember that no one was hurt in this fire, and the building to the south, the Hopper Home, is still standing and repairs are being made.

Kirichenko said...

Please do anything possible to save the facade. It was heartbreaking to me when the building burned. With it went the choir loft where my grandfather and father directed choruses and the beautiful pipe organ they played. I sat in the pews on occasion and sometimes in the choir loft. I will happily donate to rebuild with the old facade intact.