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.
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.