Polishing West Side Jewel
Parishioners restoring Annunciation Church

Daily News Staff Writer

Standing majestically on Manhattan's West End Ave. is a little-known treasure with a history that touches three centuries.The 109-year old Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church at 302 W. 91st St. is in the midst of a major renovation, inspired by its 250 members.

"The craftsmen of 1892 did outstanding work," said the Rev. James Moskovites, protopresbyter of the church. "But we have to restore and upgrade everything from plumbing to the electrical system and we decided to do it from the ground up."

The restoration fund-raising campaign, which began during centenary celebrations in 1991, has been hampered by limited funds while the estimated cost has actually increased by $300,000 to $2.8 million. The fund is $800,000 short, Moskovites said.

But a bright star shone on the church Saturday night when former President Bill Clinton, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer and Gov. Pataki joined hundreds of people at a sold-out fund-raising gala at the New York Hilton.

"I feel honored and privileged to have people of that caliber come to the event," Moskovites said. The amount raised was not yet available, he said.

The gala was also in honor of John Catsimatidis, a Manhattan businessman and philanthropist who served as an altar boy in the church at age 12 and is now a major benefactor.

The first phase of the renovation project has already begun in the three-story church hall, which will also house church offices.

Additional phases will include the church interior and an adjacent three-story townhouse whose five apartments are rented out to generate operational revenue.

The church was designed by Heins & LaFarge, the architectural firm that also designed the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.

East Meets West

Originally built for the Fourth Presbyterian Church, the church was taken over by the Greek Orthodox congregation in 1953. The limestone and sandstone Gothic Revival structure is home to a blend of Gothic and Byzantine expressions.

The original pews and huge U-shaped balcony are carved in a Gothic motif in dark, polished wood. The ceiling frames, made from the same wood, converge in a gentle pinnacle. Daylight in the church is filtered through several huge Tiffany stained-glass windows.

In 1957, the church acquired a Byzantine flavor with the addition of a hand-carved wooden icon screen to separate the sanctuary from the nave.

The original 2,500-pipe Ernest Skinner organ remains intact in the balcony but has not been played in decades because Greek Orthodox liturgy does not allow organ music.

"Neighborhood people just walk by, and when we open up the doors they look inside and they are enthralled into coming in," Moskovites said. "The uniqueness of the church community is its people's warmth."

Penelope Sanford, 47, an administrative assistant from Manhattan and a member of the church for four years, agreed.

"It's very welcoming," Sanford said. "Sometimes in Greek churches, because we follow a very rigid service, it is very hard to find that kind of warmth."

Anastasia Nicholas, 63, a retired teacher from Leonia, N.J., said the renovation coincides with the rejuvenation of the church membership, which had dwindled so drastically as members bolted the city in the '60s and '70s that the church nearly closed.

"I felt sad but I still hoped that it would turn around some day," said Nicholas, who has been a member since 1962 and is one of 30 volunteers who planned the Saturday gala. "Now we have a lot of parishioners that walk to church and 35 kids in our Sunday school."

Original Publication Date: 1/28/02