Volume 80, Number 9 | July 29 - August 4, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Church says nyet, community says da on landmarking

By Albert Amateau

East Village preservation advocates argued with members of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral at a Community Board 3 hearing over the proposal to landmark the cathedral building across from the New York City Marble Cemetery.

The July 15 hearing ended after Carolyn Ratcliffe, chairperson of
the C.B. 3 Landmarks Committee, urged preservationists to meet with Father Dean Michael Suvak of the cathedral parish in an effort to resolve the two-year-old controversy over the proposed landmark designation of the 1891 building at 59 E. Second St.

Suvak told the committee that the parish council of the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection would have to approve church participation in the proposed meeting, which would include representatives of the city Landmarks Preservation Commission and the nonprofit New York Landmarks Conservancy.

Preservation advocates agreed to schedule a mediation meeting with the cathedral parish.

Church members are strongly opposed to landmark designation, which they say would impose financial burdens on a cash-poor parish in order to meet L.P.C. requirements for repairs to the 119-year old building. The church made the same claim at the Landmarks Preservation Commission designation hearing in March. The commission has not yet made a decision on the landmark application and there is no timetable or deadline for a decision.

The East Village Community Coalition and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation were the prime movers in 2008 in getting L.P.C. to consider landmarking the historic building after they learned that the parish proposed to build an eight-story addition above the Gothic-style church.

But the rezoning of the East Village in 2008, which imposed an 80-foot height limit on new construction in the area, now prohibits an addition like that. Moreover, Suvak told the July 15 meeting, “I don’t think we’d ever consider that now.”

Richard Wright, a member of the church, said he was among the parishioners who opposed the addition.

“We won,” he said, adding that designation is not necessary to preserve the building.

Nevertheless, several neighbors speaking at the July 15 meeting in favor of landmark designation contended that future members of the congregation could again decide to build the addition.

“Stop referring to that absurd development,” pleaded Suvak. “We’re not going to do that.”

Susan Stetzer, C.B. 3 district manager, assured the meeting that because of the rezoning, the addition was now impossible.

Still, the shadow of the addition loomed over the meeting last week. Two years ago when the church needed a new boiler costing $70,000, neighborhood gossips said it was installed under cover of night in order to prepare for the addition on top of the church, said Arthur Donovan, a neighbor who spoke in support of the church and against landmarking.

Preservation advocates said that landmark designation would make the church eligible for grants and low-cost loans for approved renovations. Colleen Heemeyer of the Landmarks Conservancy said the conservancy has made grants of up to $50,000 as part of its Sacred Sites program to landmarked churches and synagogues.

“We have made 600 low-cost loans totaling $20 million,” Heemeyer said. The landmarked Eldridge St. Synagogue has had several loans and grants for repairs and restoration, she said.

However, Barbara Hegerman, choir director of the parish, said she had previously been choir leader in a landmarked church in Brooklyn that had a leaking roof. By the time L.P.C. got around to approving the repair, water had leaked into the church and damaged the interior, Hegerman claimed.

Reverend David Kassey, pastor of St. Mary’s Orthodox Church, at 121 E. Seventh St., said that Orthodox churches are generally struggling financially.

“My church could not afford a full-time pastor. I’m part-time,” he said. “The burden of landmarking will impose cuts in more parishes,” he said.

However, Michael Rosen, a founder of the East Village Community Coalition, said there was no question that the building, designed by Josiah Cleveland Cady, architect of the south wing of the American Museum of Natural History, was worthy of designation. Rosen noted that Councilmember Rosie Mendez last year urged L.P.C. to confer landmark status on the church. He added that the landmarked synagogue he attends has benefited from Landmarks Conservancy grants.

Elizabeth Finkelstein, preservation director of G.V.S.H.P., told cathedral parish members that landmark designation should not be feared. The society shares space with the Historic Districts Council, another preservation advocacy group, in the landmarked rectory of St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery on E. 11th St., which works well with L.P.C., she said.

Philip VanAver, a member of the steering committee of the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative, said the neighborhood has lost several historic churches and needs landmarking status to preserve what’s left.

David Mullins, an East Village resident and a high school history teacher, said landmarking the building was needed to preserve the immigrant history of the neighborhood.

The history of the site goes back to 1867 when the New York Missionary Society converted a house on the east end of the site into the Olivet Chapel, dedicated to the immigrant population and offering services in German, Hungarian, Italian and Russian. In 1891, the chapel was demolished and the society laid the cornerstone of the present church, with space for classes, a library, baths and meetings, according to the L.P.C. report. In 1943, the Orthodox Church of America acquired the building and had the interior painted with Byzantine-style icons.

Armin Ruiz-Madera, a resident of Avenue D and a longtime parishioner of the cathedral parish, made an emotional plea last week against landmark designation.

“Please look beyond the stones,” he said. “There’s a beating heart of a church that has given me and others like me comfort and protection from the turmoil of daily life.”

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