Community board disapproves redesign plan for First Church of Christ, Scientist

Lynda Starks, a member of Fresh Start New Beginnings Christian Church, speaks in support of having the church return to its original purpose, being house of worship at the Upper West Side’s Community Board 7 on Jan. 7, 2020. (Photo by Chriss Williams)

BY CHRISS WILLIAMS  |

A once sacred house of worship is in the process of transforming into a secular space, and it’s not going well.

Community Board 7 voted to disapprove the Children’s Museum of Manhattan’s (CMOM) proposed design plans for the former First Church of Christ, Scientist, at their Jan. 7, full-board meeting.

The church was purchased by CMOM for $45 million back in 2018 with plans of moving in by 2023.

This vote marks another community set back for the church, as the design firm’s first proposal was rejected by the community board’s preservation committee back in early December of 2019. The designers returned to the CB on Tuesday with a revised version of their 78-page-long proposal.

The park-facing former First Church of Christ, Scientist sits at the corner of Central Park West and West 96th St. and was built seven years after Mary Baker Eddy founded the Church of Christian Science in Boston. Some of the early followers that built the first parish in the city include Laura Lathrop and Augusta Emma Stetson. Lathrop eventually left the first church to found the Second Church of Christ, Scientist less than twenty blocks away at Central Park West and West 68th St.

In 2005, services at the First Church of Christ, Scientist were folded into the Second church, a year after the building’s sale to the Crenshaw Christian Center East.

The Crenshaw Christian Center, according to its website, is a Los Angeles based, “non-denominational, nonsectarian, multi-racial church” and started holding services at 361 Central Park West in 2001. Crenshaw later purchased the sanctuary from the First Church of Christ, Scientist for $14 million in 2004. For the next decade, they held services in the 7-story building including an auditorium designed to hold 2,000 people. In 2014, Crenshaw sold it to developers Ira Shapiro and Joseph Brunner who intended to turn the building into a condominium. Their proposed plans for the building were also disapproved by Community Board 7. The project eventually fell through and it changed hands once again to CMOM in 2018.

Former First Church of Christ Scientists in the Upper West Side. The former house of worship was built in 1903 and designated a city landmark in 1974. (Photo from Wikicommons.)

In the modified design proposal, CMOM’s  called for roof reconstruction and the removal of all but one of the building’s stained-glass windows in lieu of clear glass. One of the windows will be kept, design firm reps said, in order to teach future visitors to the museum about the history of the building. As for the remainder of the windows, CMOM is negotiating with the National Building Arts Center in St. Louis to take one, while the others remain in on-site storage.

Pastor Terry Starks, of the Fresh Start New Beginning Christian Church, implored the board to disapprove the resolution.

Starks lead a congregation for several years at 361 Central Park West when the building was owned by Crenshaw Christian Center East and sought the board’s support in returning the building to its original purpose, a church.

“It’s been a church for 117 years. They are trying to do everything they can to cover it up as a church,” Starks said. “That’s my assignment. My purpose is to stop it from being a museum.”

Dr. Deborah White, a member of Starks current congregation, also pushed back against the proposed redesign describing the plan as “architectural vandalism.”

Other Upper West Side residents expressed excitement over the museum’s presence in the neighborhood but were concerned that altering the roof and removing the stained-glass windows would affect the integrity of the building.

“If the church could not remain a church we were happy to have a museum like CMOM. But we believed they would treat the church with great sensitivity and leave largely intact the most gracious and artistic elements of the design,” said a representative of the Central Park West Neighbors Association. The association formed in 2015 and successfully fought the condo developers.

The resolution was debated for several hours before being disapproved on the grounds that the roof reconstruction and stained-glass windows were not appropriate to the character of the historical landmark.

Although the proposal was originally slated to be heard by the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission on Monday Jan. 14, it is in the process of being rescheduled, according to an LPC spokesperson.

 

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