August 5, 2004
Underused Harlem Church, Elegant and Endangered
By DAVID W. DUNLAP
In a protest at St. Patrick's Cathedral of plans to demolish St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Harlem, a demonstrator displayed a photo of the facade.
The interior of St. Thomas the Apostle, on West 118th Street in Harlem. An architectural guide cites its "berserk eclecticism reminiscent of the filigrees of Milan's cathedral or of many Flemish or Venetian fantasies."
ST. THOMAS the Apostle Roman Catholic Church, at 262 West 118th Street, is the "most significant structure to be destroyed in the city since Penn Station," said Michael Henry Adams, Harlem's prickly conscience in the landmark preservation movement.
Others might nominate the old Metropolitan Opera House near Times Square or the towering Singer Building on lower Broadway for that dubious distinction. But there is reason to mention Pennsylvania Station and St. Thomas in the same breath, beside the fact that they were near-contemporaries almost a century ago.
Penn Station was not the first unprotected landmark to be razed in the modern era, but it was the one whose loss seemed inconceivable. "Until the first blow fell," The New York Times said on Oct. 30, 1963, "no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism."
Similarly, it may astonish New Yorkers to think that a building as exquisite and ornate as St. Thomas is to be leveled; that such a fantastic Gothic grace note, interwoven in neighborhood history, should be lost. The Archdiocese of New York says its fate is sadly inevitable, given a diminished parish, a deteriorating structure and a broader reconsideration - now under way - of where the church will invest its resources.
If Penn Station was the sacrificial victim that galvanized the preservation movement in the early 1960's, St. Thomas may be the building that awakens public awareness of the plight of many grand houses of worship, landmarks and would-be landmarks, whose congregations are small and short of money.
Only several hundred New Yorkers have been inside St. Thomas in recent years, but those who know it are unfailingly impressed by the spidery fan-vaulted ceilings, sumptuous high altar, elaborate stations of the cross and jewel-like stained-glass windows by Mayer of Munich.
"This is all in all one of the most original buildings in the city," wrote Edward F. Bergman in "The Spiritual Traveler: New York City" (HiddenSpring, 2001). The AIA Guide to New York City (Three Rivers Press, 2000) described its style as "berserk eclecticism reminiscent of the filigrees of Milan's cathedral or of many Flemish or Venetian fantasies." In "Harlem, Lost and Found" (Monacelli Press, 2002), Mr. Adams wrote of its kinship to chapels at Windsor Castle and Westminster Abbey.
Designed by Thomas H. Poole and dedicated in 1907, St. Thomas was the spiritual home of Hulan E. Jack, who worshiped there on the day he was sworn into office in December 1953 as Manhattan borough president, becoming the highest-ranking black administrative official in the nation at the time.
To the question of how a once-thriving church reached today's straits, there are several answers. And some pointed fingers.
"People were not coming to the church, and that was what really led to the deterioration of the church," said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese. "The parish did not have the money to make the repairs to keep the church functional."
"St. Thomas was almost an emergency situation," he said.
While the archdiocese could have stepped in, Mr. Zwilling said, "If you were to pour all your resources into St. Thomas's to fix it up, you might have to go to two other parishes in the Harlem community and say, 'You have to close and you have to close.' "
That said, Mr. Zwilling added that the archdiocese took time since it suspended services at St. Thomas last September to consider what to do with the property, just off St. Nicholas Avenue. He said reuse of the building had been discussed but "was not feasible." Repair costs are estimated at $5 million.
WE were contacted by a large number of developers who wanted to buy the site," Mr. Zwilling said. Ultimately the archdiocese decided to construct a 57-unit home for the elderly, beginning next year. "Certainly, the development of affordable senior housing is consistent with the church's overall mission," he said.
Stained glass windows and doors from St. Thomas are bound for other parishes, including the new Church of the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, in LaGrangeville, Dutchess County, or storage for eventual reuse, Mr. Zwilling said. Angel figures will be distributed among Harlem parishes. Two or three altars will go into St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Mr. Adams was outside St. Patrick's yesterday, leading 15 or so demonstrators. "The cardinal is tearing down our church!" he boomed out, rivaling in volume everyone else on the protest line together. He and other preservationists still entertain hope of exercising leverage if the archdiocese's housing project applies for federal financing.
But Mr. Adams also said he blamed the Landmarks Preservation Commission for not acting. The commission's reluctance to designate Roman Catholic churches is evident in the record: none have been given individual landmark status since 1976. At least two dozen Catholic churches in Manhattan alone would warrant consideration, including All Saints Church at 47 East 129th Street and the Church of St. Aloysius at 209 West 132nd Street.
Yesterday, Robert B. Tierney, the chairman of the landmarks commission, said that both would be considered for landmark status at a hearing on Sept. 21 and that the commission was working in concert with the archdiocese. "I'm actually quite pleased that the logjam has broken," he said, referring to the 28-year designation interval.
But he acknowledged, implicitly, that St. Thomas could have been in that group. "I have to candidly admit to you that I came to it too late in the process to affect it," Mr. Tierney said.
Of the impending demolition, he said: "That's more than regrettable. It's incredibly sad."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company