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.

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an MFA in Art Writing from the School of Visual...

3 replies on “Manhattan Museum Will Renovate and Alter Landmarked Church, Prompting Backlash”

  1. What a one-sided article. Were you at the LPC hearing? Did you go to the community board hearings?
    CMOM could not have been made more welcome by this community. When the plan by a developer was rejected by the BSA because it was ill-suited with four variances they could not see a way to approving, CMOM was more than welcomed to purchase this space. This did not make members of the former church happy as they’d hoped to assume the underlying mortgage and remain in the church they never wished to leave. Unfortunately it was sold by the West Coast branch with a seeming lack of transparency.
    Prior to the design of CMOM’s plan they did meet with community members and were warmly greeted and welcomed. But they came with no plans. The plan they came up with subsequently was universally disliked at every meeting they showed it at. And it would seem the Landmarks Preservation Commission very much agreed with the community in their response to CMOM to go back and redesign based on their feedback. They even went further. They told CMOM they could not remove the 3 front wooden doors as they wanted to. They did not want the steps removed either as the architects designed. They asked them to change or eliminate their signage. They asked them to rethink the roof plan with massive bulkheads, and the terrace and a glass performance center. And they asked them to keep as much of the stained glass windows as possible. LPC did not like the idea of such important examples of American stained art glass being shipped out of New York. Some of these requests for change were never even made by the community but LPC saw them as necessary. The fact is this church is an individual landmark designated as such because of the very features that CMOM would like to remove or dissemble. The LPC regulates such landmarks and did not give this plan anything but a signal to go back to the drawing board. I think for an “art” magazine you might want to concern yourself with the landmarks law which preserves the historic and cultural legacy of this city, That a museum wishes to remove the “art” from the landmark they seemed to have thoughtfully purchased but now as someone said in the hearing, are treating it like its a blank canvas, is very concerning.

    1. As a community member I am aware of both sides of the argument. The author’s omission of expert opposition opinion is, therefore, particularly glaring. I am also a curator and art historian with a deep interest in site specificity and what is and isn’t integral to a work of site-specific art or architecture. The exterior of this structure is landmarked and its integrity must be protected. To remove the stain glass windows is tantamount to destruction. Proposing a bulky structure on the roof suggests an arrogant disregard for the original design by Carrère and Hastings. The church, completed in 1903, was landmarked in 1974 and in 2004 was described by New York Times architectural historian Christopher Gray as “one of the city’s most sumptuous churches. If someone suggested messing with, for example, Simon Rodia’s Watts Tower, Maya Linn’s Vietnam Memorial, site-specific sculpture by Ann Hamilton, Scott Burton, or Siah Armajani would you not at least give equal time to the artist and/or their advocates?

  2. Well now that all construction has ceased, maybe people will sit back
    and recognize that this is a project in which the players decided based
    on their reputation as a nonprofit that stands for advancing education
    and good civics, they could pretty much do what they want. CMOM was
    welcomed into the neighborhood and then destroyed the stepped right over
    the welcome mat and ignored those who put it there. This has nothing to
    do with NIMBYism or being against the museum project itself. It’s
    amazing that some of the people here are either ill-informed or
    spreading untruths. The project started out with full support of
    everyone in the community, from neighbors to civic community groups to
    all the local pols. Until…it became apparent that their plans were to
    destroy parts of the building that violate landmark law. It was both
    conceited and ill-conceived. It was stalled because every agency in the
    city that saw their plans told them to go back to the drawing board.
    They were so taken back with this response, since they apparently
    assumed whatever they wanted would pass muster, that their “revised”
    plans were made such minor changes that they insulted those who hold the
    strings. The degree to which the agencies, all of them, responded
    negatively is largely unprecedented. Sure CMOM needs a new home and this
    building will give them the space they say they need. But that fact
    alone should not dictate how it is rebuilt and how they should be
    behaving within the bounds of the laws designed for preserving our most
    treasured landmarks. If they didn’t want any restrictions, they should
    have found a different location where they would be none.

Comments are closed.