Manhattan Museum Will Renovate and Alter Landmarked Church, Prompting Backlash

Some community members have opposed the Children’s Museum of Manhattan plans to relocate to a former church on the Upper West Side.

A rendering of the renovated former First Church of Christ, Scientist on 361 Central Park in Manhattan (courtesy the Children’s Museum of Manhattan)

A proposal this week to relocate the Children’s Museum of Manhattan (CMOM) to an Upper West Side Beaux-Arts church is facing fierce opposition from the local community.

In a hearing at New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) earlier this week, CMOM presented its plans to move into the former First Church of Christ, Scientist on 361 Central Park West and fully rebuild its interior.

The museum purchased the church in 2017 for $45 million with the intention to make it a home of its activities. In 2015, a developer’s attempt to repurpose the church into condominiums was thwarted by the community.

The proposal includes adding a roof for performance and workshop space, removing several stained glass windows, and lowering entrances to make them accessible to people living with disabilities.

During the four-hour hearing, the latest of a series of heated hearings over the proposal, preservationists, neighbors, and members of the church’s congregation have raised their objection to the roof addition and the removal of historic stained glass (the windows will be donated to the National Building Arts Center in St. Louis, according to the proposal.)

Valeria Ricciulli of Curbed New York reported that preservationists and community members called the proposed changes “cultural vandalism.”

“Why buy a church if you don’t like the windows, when you knew that they were landmarked when you purchased it?” said Lynda Starks, a member of the Fresh Start New Beginning church, during the hearing.

Proponents of the project included Upper West Side City Council member Mark Levine, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and former LPC commissioner Sherida Paulson.

“It’s supposed to be a place of public assembly. It was and is meant to be enjoyed by many, not just a few people, so I’m really glad this proposal will open the building to the public,” Brewer said at the hearing. “The repurposing of valued churches of historic significance is difficult, a very difficult challenge,” she added and noted that the plan can still be amended.

The museum also has Deborah Berke, dean of Yale School of Architecture, on its side. “The proposed windows will fill the museum with natural light and remove now-inappropriate ecclesiastical imagery while maintaining the historic botanical stained-glass borders and identical bronze muntins,” the prominent architect wrote in a letter to the commission.

In a statement to Hyperallergic, CMOM said: “We strongly believe that our proposal to the Landmarks Preservation Commission is the best way to restore the historic building, bring it back to public use as a space to serve the community, and fulfill CMOM’s mission to be a citywide resource for all families.”

The statement continued:

After extensive conversations with the local community, notable architects, our elected officials and members of the Landmarks Preservation Commission staff, we developed a proposal that would adaptively reuse this important building into an accessible, open, light-filled and dynamic institution that will serve children and families for generations to come. 

The meeting ended with no resolution, and the LPC asked the museum to make changes to the proposal before returning for another hearing.

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