Landmark Designation and the
Churches of New York

Page Cowley


  The distinctive red sandstone facade of West-Park Presbyterian Church  
  West-Park Presbyterian Church (chapel by Leopold Eidlitz, 1884, sanctuary by Henry F Kilburn, 1890, completing the Eidlitz design): This church was recently designated a New York City landmark, a victory for the community, but a potential loss for the presbytery. Some form of tenant partnership will be needed to offset the cost of repair and rehabilitation and share the maintenance of the property.   

The listing of a historic place of worship in the UK is usually considered a good news story. In contrast, when historic religious properties in New York City (the five boroughs of Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island) are considered for the US equivalent, landmark designation, the response of interested parties is likely to be more discordant.

New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission was established in 1965 when Mayor Robert Wagner signed the local law which created the commission and gave it its power. The enactment of The Landmarks Law reflected mounting popular pressure to prevent the loss of important elements of the city’s built heritage, notably the 1963 demolition of the vast neoclassical Pennsylvania Station. Once a landmark has been ‘designated’ any action taken thereafter must be submitted to an agency and/or go before a public review process to determine whether the proposed action is likely to have an adverse effect.

That the seemingly innocuous accolade of ‘landmark’ should cause alarm is indicative of the anxiety generated when further governmental intervention and oversight of private property is required, especially when applied to non-profit or religious institutions. Turning a venerated building into a landmark is a public process that often pits advocates for historic preservation against the potential financial opportunity of building owners or managers.

This article considers the key issues associated with the designation and preservation of New York City’s historic houses of worship. While reference is made to other faiths and denominations, the article primarily focuses on the city’s Anglican churches.


In New York City, as in many urban centres in the US, there is a tendency to assume that religious properties will survive or remain unchanged, as though they were immune to the boom and bust cycles of urban property development. On the contrary, houses of worship are equally affected by difficult economic times. They are equally subject to escalating operating and maintenance costs and at times it can be difficult for congregations to raise the necessary funds to further mission and outreach projects. Religious institutions can also struggle to preserve or maintain their property as a result of unpredictable internal causes: income waning as a result of an aging membership, changing demographics, or falling attendance. These internal factors can influence the financial stability and growth of congregations.

When houses of worship do run into trouble, it can be some time before the wider community becomes aware of the fact. Successful and active congregations can easily be taken for granted by their non-member neighbours; as long as a property is maintained and used it attracts little attention. However, deteriorating interiors, defective heating, plumbing and electrical conditions can collectively develop into insurmountable problems requiring radical solutions including the sale of the property. And when financial burdens become too great, become publicised and even politicised, it is often too late to offer financial assistance, even if there is a rush from the public to ‘rescue’ a house of worship. All too often, generous gestures are neither enough to change the financial outlook nor to solve the internal issues that caused the decline. Furthermore, offers of assistance are often interpreted as interference.

When a local community gets involved in the fate of a neighbourhood church which is deemed at risk, they create additional pressures on the church congregation and administration. The community’s well-intentioned efforts to find tenants, raise funds, and/or press for designation complicate the congregation’s decision-making process. This can delay landmark designation for decades or force the church’s sale or even demolition.

In the case of West-Park Presbyterian Church (illustrated above), a 20-year battle between the congregation and the neighbourhood ended in 2010 with landmark designation, but at the potential price of losing the congregation. Designation had been opposed by the church leadership, which wanted to demolish part of the building – already closed due to deterioration – for a new development. The church’s pastor described the decision as an infringement of religious liberty (‘City Council Upholds Landmark Status of West Side Church’, Robin Pogrebin, The New York Times, 12 May 2010). A massive effort is under way by advocacy groups including the council member representing the district to raise funds to repair the church exterior while the congregation and presbytery at large seek a solution for their occupancy of the interior.

Clearly, the relationship between an ‘at risk’ church and its non-member community is fraught with difficulty. One pastor on the Upper West Side of Manhattan has suggested that, rather than trying to rescue the church from without, community members could offer much more effective support by joining the congregation and providing support from within. In any event, churches and communities increasingly need to find common ground and work in partnership if mutually acceptable solutions are to be found.

There are, of course, success stories too. Indeed some congregations seem to thrive under pressure to raise money to upgrade or preserve their buildings, or to fund outreach and other projects. Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, for example, drafted an extensive master plan and undertook a fundraising campaign culminating in the comprehensive restoration and rehabilitation of its property in the late 1990s (top left).

Other churches have been able to secure grant funding to supplement their own fundraising efforts. St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Harlem (below right), was in need of major exterior repairs to a slate roof. Through the Episcopal Diocese Property Support Office, which helps congregations to help themselves to care for their buildings and grounds, both technical and financial assistance were provided. The congregation raised a proportionate share of the restoration cost.

  The interior of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Harlem: exterior with street trees
  Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church (James Ware & Sons, 1899, altered by Adams & Woodbridge in 1966; restored and rehabilitated 1996-2001, Page Ayres Cowley Architects LLC): the church faces Madison Avenue and the sanctuary is visible through a glass-enclosed narthex allowing passersby to look inside. St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Harlem (Henry M Congdon, 1873).
Congdon designed this church on a site 2½ blocks away from the present site on Fifth Avenue. Rather than abandon the church at the original site when the congregation found a more prestigious location, Congdon was retained 16 years later to dismantle the church and re-build it on the new site, where the tower height was increased and a clock added.


One way for religious properties to boost dwindling revenues is to offer space for rental. For many houses of worship the idea of sharing a sacred place with secular uses is unpalatable, so typically, it is only when the house of worship has a secondary communal space that sharing is considered an option. Some churches find it relatively easy to rent out their non-sacred spaces because they are located close to schools or community groups that have no permanent home.

Religious properties are perceived as inexpensive because they are non-profit, and this can reduce the rent per square foot that churches can demand. Placing a value on a church building and equating the cost per square foot for fair market rental can also be problematic as for-profit and not-for-profit users sharing space may not be compatible in terms of tax codes. While sharing space has many benefits, it should be noted that additional property management and the responsibilities of being a landlord can impose other burdens on the congregations, trustees and administrators of the religious property.

One often overlooked success story is St Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery (1795), which re-invented itself in the 1960s and opted for non-profit partners as tenants. Its setting is remarkable and the old churchyard, with its ledger-type grave stones set into the cobblestones, hosts a variety of festivals and cultural events. The Parish House is now the Neighbourhood Preservation Centre, whose tenants include the Historic Districts Council, The Greenwich Village Historical Society and the St Mark’s Historic Landmark Fund. The church is multicultural and describes itself as ‘not only a house of worship, but a centre for modern dance, experimental theatre and poetry and a community gathering place for the Lower East Side’.


Another tempting source of funding is through development. Before the credit crunch began to bite in 2007, fierce competition for property in established neighbourhoods, particularly Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn, had been ongoing for decades. The potential for high financial rewards for new residential and commercial development spurred the search for underused or ‘soft’ sites. These are plots of land with potential for further development under the relevant zoning regulations, giving the owners the right to redevelop their site with a larger building if they wish. Needless to say, in areas of dense urban development these rights are highly prized. Religious properties are now coveted by a new category of property developers for their enlargement and improvement potential because of their location, often in gentrified neighbourhoods.

Developers recognise that houses of worship are often short of funds, and that maintaining historic buildings can be expensive. One way that developers can enhance projects on sites adjacent to landmarked religious properties is through the purchase or leasing of ‘air rights’. This transferral of potential development concerns the empty space above a building – its air rights. Depending on the limits imposed in a particular zoning area, square footage that cannot be used on the original site may be ‘transferred’ to enable a developer to build a larger building on an adjacent site. Effectively, the church is selling the difference between the actual built floor area on its plot and the maximum it is allowed under local zoning regulations. This might mean, for example, that the purchasing developer adjacent to the church is allowed to build a 55 storey building instead of a 30 storey building (pending approval by the Department of City Planning and the Board of Standards and Appeals for the appropriate zoning waivers).

By selling air rights in this way, the owners of historic churches in New York City have been able to receive considerable compensation without physical loss of their assets and, from the community’s perspective, the increase in density is often considered a fair trade to preserve an important building and a valued element of the streetscape. The ‘transfer’ of floor area from one site to another can upset the scale and character of a residential neighbourhood, but there is rarely opposition when it involves a religious site.

One of the more successful air rights transfers benefitted the Church of the Transfiguration, also known as ‘the Little Church Around the Corner’ (1849). Although the original parish house was demolished to make way for a 55-storey luxury apartment building, the latter incorporates a new three-storey parish house completed in 2008. The courtyard and the lych-gate designed by Frederick Clarke Withers remain (illustrated towards the bottom of this page).

The trend of churches selling sell air rights is gaining momentum. Despite the economic downturn in real estate, developers are assembling parcels to capitalise on their investment by building taller. One recent project is close to Times Square at the Church of the Holy Cross, (Henry Englebert, 1854). Developers were permitted to build more floors at an adjacent site in a complicated real estate deal that included upgrading off-site tenement buildings as part of an inclusionary housing arrangement. The zoning issues when assembling development parcels are becoming increasingly complex, but they remain potentially very profitable for both developers and churches in need of funds.

At the time of writing, new construction in the city has virtually stopped, with a handful of projects nearing completion and a few large-scale developments at the planning stage. With government subsidies for housing drastically curtailed, and borrowing for speculative development impossible to secure at a reasonable cost, there is a temporary hiatus. Community advocates for responsible development and those seeking to press forward with landmarking see this period as the perfect opportunity with little or no competition in the real-estate market.

  St Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery: facade and spire St Paul’s Chapel, lower Manhattan is dwarfed by adjacent skyscrapers
  St Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery (Ithiel Town, 1795 with later additions by James Renwick and WJ Russell in 1883). The parish house, rebuilt by Ernest Flagg in 1899 was restored in 1999. St Paul’s Chapel, lower Manhattan, attributed to the architect Thomas McBean and mastercraftsman Andrew Gautier, 1766. Modelled after St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London, it is the oldest surviving church in Manhattan. Behind the church is the former World Trade Center site.


While the selling of air rights is undoubtedly highly contentious, the most pressing debate remains whether houses of worship should become designated landmarks, and if so, who should make that decision: the congregation, which has a vested interest in the worship space and is involved in the day-to-day operation of the building, or members of the public, who appreciate the religious building from the exterior only and as a component in the streetscape.

As benign as a designation or a National Register listing may seem, not all churches believe that landmarking is necessary or even appropriate. There is deep-rooted concern that designation works against the mission of many congregations. No matter how well meant, regulations are seen, initially at least, as purely restrictive. Landmark designation can therefore be a double-edged sword: if there is neither the incentive nor the funds to maintain it, the religious building property can deteriorate to a state referred to in the US as ‘demolition by neglect’. If, however, there is a willing and viable congregation, there are programmes that can provide technical assistance and in, certain cases, financial support to repair and preserve the house of worship. When the owner supports designation there is no controversy but when there is opposition the delays in resolving conflicts can take years and involve further financial burdens. Although there are justifiable reasons for public intervention, these can polarise neighbourhoods as news spreads that there are plans to sell, alter or demolish a redundant or underused religious property.

Code compliance and replacement of antiquated systems are equally problematic, but no one truly considers that religious properties should be exempt from life safety or zoning and planning regulations and requirements, as these become matters of public safety, and any religious building should be safe for the congregation as well as any member of the visiting public. What is at stake, according to several members of the clergy interviewed during the preparation of this article (and who asked that their names be withheld), is the preservation of the centre of worship where the buildings are of secondary concern. There have been recent cases of significant churches resisting the landmark designation process, primarily because of a reluctance to disclose and/or submit to external review from public agencies and funding sources for what is seen by many religious groups as interference in the administration and management of their property.

Significant cultural heritage is built into the fabric of religious structures – from the exterior stone carvings, stained glass windows and unique architectural massing appreciated by the community and the tourist from the outside; to the exceptional liturgical furnishings, organ casework and consoles, ornamental light fixtures and other features that often survive inside. There is a fundamental realisation among some architectural historians that because historic religious buildings are largely intact, they have become ‘period pieces’ and worthy of appreciation as important social and cultural milestones, particularly in areas subject to extensive growth or re-development. On the other hand, the very notion that a religious building could be expected by preservationists to remain static, as a private repository of museum quality artefacts, has caused confusion and resentment from congregations, who feel that the preservationists fail to appreciate the mission and outreach of a church. Who are churches for? Do they exist only to house the mission and celebrate the liturgy? Or are they supporting features in a streetscape appreciated by passers-by with no knowledge of or intention of joining organised religious groups? These viewpoints may seem like absurd extremes but this, in essence, is the opposition that exists between those on the one hand who determine the significance of a structure based on its age, architect, and historic resonance, and those on the other who control the property’s administration and may view it as an asset ripe for change, development or sale.

There is no longer a guarantee that a religious building can remain viable as an anchor for a neighbourhood or community in the face of escalating operating costs, demographic and social changes. Religious buildings now also face the inevitable development pressure generated by the shortage of large sites, particularly in desirable residential urban areas where there is a need for affordable housing, schools and healthcare facilities. Underused properties or those showing signs of neglect are seen as sites ripe for development, as it is often not possible to alter the interior to suit the changing needs of the congregation. Additionally, alteration or adaptation for other uses may not be able to satisfy current code and life safety requirements. Sadly, even with the best intentions of the federal, state and local designation process, protection is not always possible. Hardship cases are often won when the church mission is at risk: suddenly the preservation issues become secondary.

  The Church of the Transfiguration, which is set back from the street behind its popular garden  
  The Church of the Transfiguration (‘The Little Church Around the Corner’), built in 1850 and later extended by Henry Clark Withers. This church is an oasis in midtown. The sale of the air rights has made a comprehensive building repair campaign possible.  

Michael Rebic, Property Support Director at The Episcopal Diocese of New York, recently stated that there is no official policy when it comes to landmarking within the diocese: ‘The merits of landmarking are on a case-by-case basis for both National Register listing and local designations’, he explained, and was then pleased to add; ‘both aspects of preservation can work together and be mutually beneficial’. He admitted that initially there was some hesitation about placing buildings on the state and national registers and some congregations sought designation without diocesan approval. ‘However,’ he explained, ‘once it was understood that designation did not entail restrictions and that it could make properties eligible for state grant funding, most opposition disappeared immediately’.

The Episcopal Diocese of New York maintains a cordial relationship with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, although it is sometimes frustrated by the extent of detail enforced or called for. Michael Rebic is not alone in this concern – the clergy is primarily concerned with keeping the rain and wind out of the buildings and their church open and occupied, while preservation officials often seem more concerned with the use of appropriate methods and materials for repairs.


Much of the current debate about landmarks and stewardship focuses on the cost of the work and funding sources which almost always exclude buildings that are not already on the National Register or are not eligible for listing. There are advocacy groups, such as the New York Landmarks Conservancy that offer low interest loans and grants, and the State of New York has grants available under the Environmental Protection Fund, if the property qualifies under the grant criteria.

The Episcopal Diocese of New York has come up with a partial solution to help its congregations by offering grants for certain types of repairs: the Roof Reserve Fund, the Energy Stewardship Grants, and the Material Grant Program. All grants are targeted towards the most significant stewardship and maintenance problems. Michael Rebic encourages preservation planning as a starting point to avoid crises. Knowing the building history and the lifespan of particular building materials and types of structure can save money in the long term. It also helps congregations budget and pay for repairs that will be durable and cost-effective over time. Substitute materials are acceptable only if they meet certain life-cycle criteria (40-70 years depending on type and installation). Energy grants are outright grants designed to reduce energy consumption and utility expenses.

From an outsider’s perspective, the Episcopal Diocese is perhaps unique in thinking of ways to keep congregations working to keep their mission and purpose strong and their buildings healthy. Michael Rebic admits ‘it is far easier to manage a financial portfolio than a real estate portfolio’. As the landmark issues recede and re-building communities, not just religious centres, come into focus, there is a need for churches to fulfil obligations that the government can no longer provide. If this continues to be the case, what other options are there than to protect our religious built heritage?


(1) For more information on grants and fundraising for houses of worship in the US, see Tuomi Joshua Forrest’s article, Historic Church Preservation in the US.



Historic Churches, 2010


PAGE AYRES COWLEY FAIA RIBA LEED AP is a principal of Page Ayres Cowley Architects LLC, a New York practice that specialises in the design, adaptive reuse and restoration of historic buildings.

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