Historic landmark designation spells death for many churches

The Atlantic Cities explores the question of what can be done with historic church buildings:

When it comes to the holy trinity of art, architecture, and religion, few buildings are more significant than the 1898 Methodist Church in Norwalk, Connecticut. Anchoring a main street, the Romanesque-style church features a stained-glass rose window designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany himself. The founders of American Methodism preached there. Given its prominence and pedigree, should the church’s governing body be allowed to sell the building for development, as it is currently trying to do?

The U.S. Constitution, according to many observers, says yes, but historic preservationists beg to differ. Who decides?

...these old churches are beloved landmarks, whether people worship there or not. Churches are key to a city’s architectural character and its social and religious history, preservationists say. Often, these advocates will stamp a capital L on these landmarks through official historic designation. At the state or local level, such designations can limit what happens to church buildings by preventing significant alterations or demolition.

Such limitations, church leaders say, can pose economic hardships that interfere with their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. A spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, for example, recently characterized the city’s effort to landmark six churches as "extremely offensive." Federal and state laws, particularly the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act, protect religious groups from some property use restrictions.

But the case law goes both ways. The most famous federal case on the issue, going back two decades, is St. Bartholomew’s Church vs. the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. The church, whose sanctuary is a designated landmark, sought to demolish its adjacent community house to build a high-rise office tower, the income from which would support religious activities. "If we don’t have more money," a church official said at the time, "we won’t be able to preserve the very building that the preservationists are concerned about: the church sanctuary." The U.S. Court of Appeals ultimately upheld the landmark.

Comments (5)

I have wildly ambivalent feelings about this.

Generally speaking, I come down on the side of...

...landmark preservation. To put it most unkindly, historic BEAUTIFUL buildings are WAY too important to be left to the decisions of what current idiots park their bums there!

I know there are exceptions. Issues where religious liberty should dictate the wrecking ball should fall.

But I think that the current congregation should try to honor the spirit which animated the building of the historic sanctuary in the first place.

Now, whether impoverished congregations should receive funds (and how) to keep up their landmark is another issue...

JC Fisher

FWIW, I once worked for an ecumenical agency, whose director was VERY involved on the legal side of religious groups FIGHTING landmark laws: talk about being in a tough spot! :-X

As a former parishioner of St. Bart's, here's my opinion, based on my experience there: If houses of worship should be available for landmarking, financial viability/burden on the congregation should be considered in the decision. And the status should not be permanent.

The church building at St. Bart's is worthy of landmark designation. The Community House is and was not. The Supreme Court's decision on the Landmarkers' side has left St. Bart's in a financial situation from which it has not--and may never--recover.

Some sensibility has to be used here. Instead of mission, the rector and staff have to be constantly concerned with raising funds to pay to keep the doors to the landmark open. If or when St. Bart's and others like it run out of money, is the Landmarks Society going to pay to keep the building open?

I know from experience that the congregation is trying their almighty best to "honor the spirit which animated the building of the historic sanctuary," but it's short-sighted to think that the numbers and wealth of Episcopalians in New York City can compare to what they were when the building was built 80 years ago. A saying was prevalent among us, and it is absolutely spot on: "the Vanderbilts have left." The people who donated to build the church didn't necessarily leave trusts to maintain it, and it is no fault of their own that, as you call them, the "current idiots" can't sustain the gargantuan building.

And the Landmarkers, if they wish to play, might also help pay.

I can imagine there have been many times that the rector of St. Bart's felt like the only way to focus on what should be the mission of the church was just to drop the keys off at the Landmarks Society and move to a cheaper, more sustainable building in Queens. Beloved as St. Bart's church building is, churches are really people, not buildings.

The Shoshone MIssion in Wyoming has a historical landmark building - the school that Fr. John Roberts built -- it was a beautiful stone 2 story. The historical people would not let us move the furnace up to the main floor - we wanted it out of the basement as it suffers from seasonal flooding when the fields around are irrigated. They told us to put in a sump pump and the furnace had to stay in the basement. The pump sucked the sand out from under the foundation and the walls began to sag -- then water got in between the stones and the walls were ruined. I love old buildings but historic organizations are ruinous. They did not offer any $$ for the mission to save the building. Just put on a bunch of restrictions that made it impossible to use it.

Landmark status can be a blessing, if there is money to go along with it. One church in our diocese is getting over $600,000 from various levels of government for $1M structural overhaul, without any significant restrictions beyond preserving the exterior architectural elements. However, my own parish, with a lower-level heritage designation, does not qualify for funds, but we can't make any significant alterations, leaving us short of solutions to solve a flaw in the original design and construction (the church was built in 1929, and the tower has leaked since 1930).

I'm all for historic preservation. And I've seen how it can hogtie the needs of people. An historic building on otherwise commercial grounds was to be demolished. Almost none of the original building is left and still the preservationists dragged the matter through the courts until a compromise was made to use the now totally falling down building in the new construction. And I kept thinking, "I am all for preservation of historic buildings, and preservationists have to come up with the money to keep those buildings safe and whole, or let them be demolished or otherwise altered for the sake of the people who own them." But that doesn't happen.

I live down the street from that wonderful old Methodist Church. The port cochere is wonderful, and the romanesque dome to die for. I call it the "yellow church" because it is painted yellow. I have not been inside. I'm told it's wonderful. I hope it can be spared and made safe and sound. Preservationists in Norwalk, raise the money to do this if it is to be saved. Please.

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