Preservationists Again Block Construction Of The Proposed Children’s Museum of Manhattan, on the Upper West Side

Rendering of the proposed Children's Museum of Manhattan (FXCollaborative)Rendering of the proposed Children's Museum of Manhattan (FXCollaborative)

The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) and local Community Board 7 have again failed to approve proposals to renovate and enliven an abandoned church that has been proposed as a new home for the Children’s Museum of Manhattan. Located on the Upper West Side at 361 Central Park West, the First Church of Christ Scientist was originally completed around 1903, then designated a New York City landmark in 1973.

At that time, a majority of the congregation voted against designation of the building, which the LPC disregarded outright. The congregation eventually sold the church for $14 million in 2004 after they were unable to convert the property themselves due to the vast restrictions put in place by the LPC.

In 2018, The Children’s Museum of Manhattan acquired the gutted property at which point all marble details and wooden benches had already been dismantled and sold. Then, on March 3, 2020, design studio FXCollaborative tried and failed to woo the Landmarks Preservation Commission with proposals to repurpose the church as a youth-focused museum and cultural center.

The project team also includes preservation and landmarks consultant Li/Saltzman Architects, stained glass specialists Femenella & Associates, and Horus Bronze, which provided design-assistance and feasibility assessments for the replacement and retention of existing windows.

At the core of the proposal is an attempt to celebrate the history of the building, to accomplish a design that accommodates children and adults with limited mobility, and to drastically improve the flow of natural light into the structure.

In practice, this translates to minimal alterations of the street-level façade, the replacement of stairways at the exterior of the building with 12-foot bronze-framed glass doors, all installed with ADA-compliant automatic mechanisms, and the replacement of existing stained glass windows with bronze-framed avian-safe glass. All stained glass and historic bronze framing that is not preserved in the new building, primarily due to damage or poor upkeep, would instead be donated to the National Building Arts Center.

Hstoric photo of church interiors (left) and the current semi-demolished conditions (right) - FXCollaborative

Hstoric photo of church interiors (left) and the current semi-demolished conditions (right) – FXCollaborative

Historic photo of the First Church of Christ Scientist and the proposed Children's Museum of Manhattan - FXCollaborative

Historic photo of the First Church of Christ Scientist and existing conditions at 361 Central Park West – FXCollaborative

Rendering of proposed ADA-accessible entryway - FXCollaborative

Rendering of proposed ADA-accessible entryway – FXCollaborative

Within, new programming includes four stories of exhibition halls, a roof-level performance and workshop space, a level dedicated to administrative and research facilities, a ground-floor cafe, and sub-grade mechanical and support areas. A new elevator would provide access from the sub-cellar to the performance spaces and a new roof terrace.

At the project’s hearing, the LPC and the preservationists in attendance were mostly displeased by the removal of the original stained glass, the rooftop addition, and the overall visual effect of the new museum.

For now, it’s back to the drawing board for the project team, which originally hoped to complete the museum by 2023. Whether that date is still feasible remains to be seen.

Update: While the LPC and Community Board 7 voiced great criticism of the project, the redevelopment has strong support from elected officials including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and New York City Councilmember Mark Levine, in addition to Sherida Paulsen, Former LPC Commissioner and Principal of PKSB Architects, and Deborah Berke, Dean of the Yale School of Architecture among other local architects, Community Board leaders, chairs of the preservation committee, and the Municipal Art Society of New York.

Historic (left) and renderings (right) of alterations to the historic church - FXCollaborative

Historic (left) and renderings (right) of alterations to the historic church – FXCollaborative

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11 Comments on "Preservationists Again Block Construction Of The Proposed Children’s Museum of Manhattan, on the Upper West Side"

  1. If only these people would pour their energy into preventing banal setback towers in the West 20s, 30s and 40s by the likes of Poon and Kauffmann that are actually encouraged by the building code. That’s what’s doing serious aesthetic damage to the city, not this completely reasonable and acceptable reuse… Unreal.

  2. ‘Orphans Museum’ might have a better chance

  3. This reads like a PR piece for the Children’s Museum with no interviews or information from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Community Board 7, Landmark West, and the many other community organizations and preservation organizations who have all agreed that this is a very inappropriate and ill-suited design for the exterior envelope of this historic individual landmark. That doesn’t mean a good design for this church cannot be achieved. This is just not it. As it happens the Landmarks Preservation Commission went beyond what the community had objected to. One of the Commissioners said that this plan is “a non-starter”. Since you’ve listed all the experts working for CMOM on this project, I’ll just mention here some of those who agree with the Landmarks Commission who opposed this design and sent the architects back to the drawing board. They include museum curators, architectural historians, stained glass experts, architects, designers, preservationists, etc. They include the Historic Districts Council, the Landmarks Conservancy, Landmark West, the Society for the Architecture of the City, Save Central Park, Alliance for a Human Scale New York, Save Our Brooklyn Neighborhoods and many others. Perhaps you’d like to follow up with another article where you reach out to some of the experts on the other side or at least the Landmarks Commission. ‘Til then you are living up to your name, New York Yimby.

    • Sebastian Morris | March 13, 2020 at 2:11 am | Reply

      Isabella – Elected officials including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and New York City Councilmember Mark Levine, in addition to Sherida Paulsen, Former LPC Commissioner and Principal of PKSB Architects, and Deborah Berke, Dean of the Yale School of Architecture, and the Municipal Art Society of New York have all gone on record to support the project. Letters were submitted to the LPC in the proposal process. The opinions of the LPC and the Community Board have been reported at length in this post. It is admittedly the supporters of the project whose voice was not included preceding the most recent update – not the former as you claim.

  4. wow – i think most folks would say just the opposite starting from the title of this piece which reads like a misleading opposition piece. Preservationists (more like neighbors who are worried about views) have blocked nothing as landmarks has taken no action yet.
    Many architectural authorities with great credibility and preservationists have also come out in support of the project and the proposed types of changes from the dean of architecture of yale to former landmarks commissioners to the community board preservation committee chairs and even the municipal arts society. And this doesn’t include all of the elected officials who are on the record about the appropriateness of the proposed changes including the borough president. I’m sure there will be and probably should be discussion of the details of the adaptive reuse but it certainly seems something along the lines of what has been proposed can and should happen to save this falling apart landmark and bring it back to life for the public to enjoy before it fall further into a state of disrepair.

  5. This is not the first time CMOM has conned a writer into doing PR work for them, rather than doing the investigative work that is the job a real journalist and which is necessary for the public to understand the relevant issues on both sides of this story. In a recent issue of an online art magazine there was a strikingly similar one-sided piece in support of CMOM’s proposal. As a community member I am aware of both sides of the argument. The author’s omission of any substantive expert opposition opinion is therefore particularly glaring—and highly suspect. The exterior of this structure is landmarked and its integrity must be protected. To remove the stain glass windows is tantamount to destruction. To then send them out of the city is adding insult to injury. In addition, proposing a bulky structure on the roof, the jarring impact of which is not adequately described in this article, suggests an arrogant disregard for the original design by Carrère & Hastings. Completed in 1903, it was landmarked in 1974 and in 2004 was described by New York Times architectural historian Christopher Gray as “one of the city’s most sumptuous churches. The fact that it would no longer function as a church is not permission to destroy its integrity.

  6. Save Central Park NYC | March 12, 2020 at 5:08 pm | Reply

    The Children’s Museum should be able to proceed while protecting the Landmarked building. The landmarking recognized the historic and architectural value inherent in the original structure. Many of the elements could never be duplicated!

  7. Sebastian I’m sure you are a worthy member of CMOM or even a board member. I congratulate you for your involvement but to suggest that all those people you listed were in agreement with the proposal is just not true. Gale Brewer was supportive, as was everyone quite frankly who expressed concerns, of the addition of CMOM to the neighborhood. However the planned proposal was concerning to many, including Ms Brewer regarding the disposition of the windows and the roof massing. To imply that this proposal is without concerns for the LPC is also disingenuous as to the last commissioner, they expressed reservations with some aspects of this plan at their discussion period. There was not one person who spoke against CMOM reusing this landmark. The main concern was the upholding of the regulations regarding the preservation of a designated building. Once this building is altered, it is altered forever.

  8. The article, while understandably “pro-alteration,” gives a slanted account.
    1. Opposition is not to “construction” as such, as the headline says. CMOM is not seeking to construct a museum but to make adaptive reuse of an individual landmark. Opposition is to excessive elements of CMOM’s current proposal, not to their move into the building as such, a prospect welcomed by the generality of the community.
    2. The article mentions CMOM’s desire for a rooftop terrace and performance spaces but says nothing explicit about the massive bulkheads for mechanical equipment desired also for the roof. The size of the desired roof-top additions ruins the design of the Carrere & Hastings structure and will be visible from all sides.
    3. While Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer spoke in general support of CMOM’s plan, she explicitly said that their rooftop additions are excessive, and she called into question the removal of the stained glass to a location in Missouri.

    A point not addressed in the article, but which was addressed by many speakers at the LPC hearing on March 3, is the distinction between a want and a need. CMOM’s representatives speak of the roof additions as meeting needs of their program, but those additions are not necessary conditions for the success of their offerings for children. Even within the existing envelope of the structure, CMOM will gain more than twice their present space. The old reading room on the present top floor is already suited to serve as an event space. The roof additions are desired not needed. And their size requires correspondingly larger bulkheads for mechanicals: HVAC equipment etc.

    I join many in looking forward to CMOM’s presenting a plan that both respects the landmark AND continues the museum’s wonderful offerings for children.

  9. Sebastian Morris-I have read your article several times. I am looking with a magnifying glass for the “opinions of the LPC and the Community Board have been reported at length in this post” which you’ve responded with to my Comment. Would that be:
    “At the project’s hearing, the LPC and the preservationists in attendance were mostly displeased by the removal of the original stained glass, the rooftop addition, and the overall visual effect of the new museum.
    Out of the entire article this is the only reference to what the LPC or Community Board said. The other 10 paragraphs are a PR piece for CMOM. This is pure NY Yimbyism. And I fully expect not to be reading this comment here where I suspect it will be “moderated” out.

  10. Well now that all construction has ceased, maybe people will sit back and recognize that this is a project in which the players decided based on their reputation as a nonprofit that stands for advancing education and good civics, they could pretty much do what they want. CMOM was welcomed into the neighborhood and then destroyed the stepped right over the welcome mat and ignored those who put it there. This has nothing to do with NIMBYism or being against the museum project itself. It’s amazing that some of the people here are either ill-informed or spreading untruths. The project started out with full support of everyone in the community, from neighbors to civic community groups to all the local pols. Until…it became apparent that their plans were to destroy parts of the building that violate landmark law. It was both conceited and ill-conceived. It was stalled because every agency in the city that saw their plans told them to go back to the drawing board. They were so taken back with this response, since they apparently assumed whatever they wanted would pass muster, that their “revised” plans were made such minor changes that they insulted those who hold the strings. The degree to which the agencies, all of them, responded negatively is largely unprecedented. Sure CMOM needs a new home and this building will give them the space they say they need. But that fact alone should not dictate how it is rebuilt and how they should be behaving within the bounds of the laws designed for preserving our most treasured landmarks. If they didn’t want any restrictions, they should have found a different location where they would be none.

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