Sacred Sites of Local Significance Get Landmarks Conservancy Grants

St. Peter’s Chelsea is currently in its second phase of restoring the church, which includes repairing the floor underneath the bell. | Photo by Reverend Stephen Harding

BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC | Two of Chelsea’s architectural gems — and community pillars — recently got a boost in funding for their restoration projects.

St. Peter’s Chelsea received $25,000 and Yeshe Nyingpo, a Tibetan Buddhist temple, received $3,000 from the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s sacred sites grant program.

The nonprofit established the program in 1986 to “address the special needs of historic religious properties,” Ann-Isabel Friedman, director of the program, said by phone. Seventeen grants for a total of $279,500 were awarded to sites throughout New York state, according to the press release.

“A lot of what we do is matchmaking — helping congregations find the right consultant and contractor for their means or particular problem or issue,” she explained. “We work with congregations where they are.”

While this is the first grant awarded to Yeshe Nyingpo (19 W. 16th St., btw. Fifth & Sixth Ave.), it is the fifth grant for St. Peter’s (346 W. 20th St., btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves.). The relationship between the church and the Conservancy dates back to 1988, when St. Peter’s was awarded one of the first grants from the program for structural repairs for the roof, Friedman said later in an email. The church also received grants in 1995, 2000, and $25,000 in 2014, according to Friedman.

“St. Peter’s is just a very significant site to Chelsea’s history,” she said.

In 1831, what is now the rectory was built, Reverend Stephen Harding, of St. Peter’s, told Chelsea Now by phone. (Merriam-Webster defines a rectory as the residence of a parish priest.) For five years, it served as the chapel but it became too small as the congregation grew, and work began on St. Peter’s in 1836, according to Harding.

Clement Clarke Moore — known for “The Night Before Christmas” poem, (which is actually titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas”) — effectively donated the land from his estate for the church, which was consecrated in 1838 (indeed, St. Peter’s is sometimes referred to as the “Christmas Church”). Moore was also, at one time, an active member of the church, according to PBS’ “Treasures of New York.”

Needless to say, some 180 years later, repairs were needed, and in 2014, the church embarked on an extensive restoration journey. Harding said it took about a year to do condition surveys, file necessary city documents and get approvals, and come up with a restoration plan. The first phase was to fix the church’s roof.

“We didn’t want a band aid approach to something crucial,” he said. “It was a major project. We were lucky. We had a lot of help and a lot of generous people.”

Work being down on the west side of St. Peter’s Chelsea in March 2016. | Photo by Jack Slowik

It took about two years and over $2 million to replace the church’s roof, he said. The church is currently in phase two, repairing and restoring the south wall of the rectory and the sacristy — per Webster, the room where a priest prepares for service — as well as repairing the floor underneath the bell in the tower. St. Peter’s has already completed restoring the south wall of the church as part of this phase, he said.

Harding said they are looking to raise $500,000 for this stage. For the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s grants, the institution must fundraise a matching amount.

A neighbor said they would anonymously donate $10,000 if the block raised $5,000, Harding said.

Enter the 300 West 20th Street Block Association.

“I was nervous about raising the $5,000. We raised the five and the checks kept on coming,” said Eric Marcus, who has lived on the block for 24 years and is a block association member.

The block association ultimately raised $9,000. Marcus said he was heartened not just by the donations, but also by the number of people who contributed.

“St. Peter’s is a key part of our community,” he said by phone. “Our neighbors are committed to community and supporting an institution… that provides services for those in need.”

Friedman noted, “Why these sites are important: They’re not just serving their congregation, they’re serving their neighborhoods.”

Since its inception over 30 years ago, the sacred sites program has helped 780 historic religious properties through 1,400 grants, according to Friedman.

“We consider this one of the cornerstones of the Conservancy,” Peg Breen, the organization’s president, said by phone. “So many of these buildings are under threat… and I think these are some of the most important in New York and in any community.”

St. Peter’s hosts concerts and operas, and the rectory is used for community-based programs — block association meetings, for example — and the church also distributes over 24,000 bags of groceries to residents in need, Harding said.

“St. Peter’s has been serving our neighbors since we started,” he said. “We are so grateful for the support from our neighbors, especially from our block.”

Working with the conservancy is great, he said. “Over the years, they have really helped us. Clearly they love the building. They have been extremely generous over the years.”

Yeshe Nyingpo’s Theresa Giorgi agreed, saying, “It’s been a wonderful experience” to work with the Conservancy.

Giorgi said she contacted them after receiving an estimate of $6,000 to restore the temple’s front door.

“We were raising money, but not enough money,” said Giorgi, who has been the general manager of the temple since 1998 and a part of the dharma center since the mid-1980s.

After about a year of fundraising, work began this month on restoring the door — seen here on Jan. 27 — at Yeshe Nyingpo, a Tibetan Buddhist temple. | Photo by Scott Stiffler

The Conservancy said it would meet the temple halfway, providing a $3,000 grant if they could raise the same amount, she said. It took about a year to raise the money, and Yeshe Nyingpo did so by reaching out to its international community.

“We have churches all around the world,” she explained by phone. “This is a temple that the Dalai Lama comes to.”

The temple maintains a special chair for the Dalai Lama, keeping a photo of him on it to connote that it is his seat, Giorgi noted.

Yeshe Nyingpo has called the three-story, red brick row house home since 1976. The landmarked 1846 house was built in the Greek Revival style, according to the release.

The temple offers several programs to the community, including instructions and guided sessions of meditation, according to its website.

Giorgi called the grant “really important. The [door’s] frame was breaking apart. It was a little bit dangerous.”

The door, which is believed to be the original, was susceptible to the elements and the hinges were coming off, she said.

Work began on Jan. 22, and Giorgi said it is expected to be completed in about two weeks.

Seen here, what is believed to be the original door to the 1846 row house, which Yeshe Nyingpo has called home for over 40 years. | Photo via tersar.org

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *