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St. Stephen's Church -- Will It Ever Be A Landmark?

by Gary Papush, Aug 22, 2005
 

Hundreds gathered in the Capitol rotunda in Washington D.C. this summer, beneath the painting of George Washington and allegorical figures representing the 13 colonies, to mark the 200th birthday of the painter who created it, Constantino Brumidi. Several senators spoke, paying tribute to a man who, Senator Hillary Clinton said, "came to this country to find a better life and, in the greatest tradition of our nation made an indelible mark on our history."

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But while Washington has heralded Brumidi, New York, the site of his other major American work, has been less kind. Brumidi's paintings grace the interior of Our Lady of the Scapular and St. Stephen's Church on East 28th Street. But despite 40 years of effort by preservationists, the building is still not a designated landmark. Many in the community, including those of us on Community Board 6, hope the bicentennial of Brumidi's birth will spur the city Landmarks Preservation Commission to act. We think the church is worthy of preserving and would like to see the process that began with Landmarks hearings in the 1960s, move forward.

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The delay at St. Stephen's, as the church is popularly called, brings into focus a problem facing landmarking in New York. All too often the landmarks commission, perennially short of staff and money, does not act until a crisis is at hand. The case of St. Stephen's also serves as an example of the limits on what the community boards can do in such instances. A Romanesque brownstone church, St. Stephen's was designed and built from 1850 to 1854 by noted architect James Renwick, who also designed St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, Grace Church in Greenwich Village and the original building of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. But it is the interior of St. Stephen's that is truly remarkable. Light pours through 100 stained glass windows created by Meyer of Munich, Germany. And then there are the Brumidi's. These include murals - such as a large crucifixion scene over the altar - and paintings depicting a variety of religious themes, including the Stations of the Cross. Brumidi also employed trompe l'oeil. What seem to be sculptures of figures such as David on closer examination turn out to be paintings. Similarly what on first glance looked like columns and stonework throughout the church were actually paintings. Much of this work, though, was covered over in the 1940s.

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As he worked at St. Stephen's, Brumidi was also busy at the Capitol, creating not only the paintings in the rotunda but other works in the building, including much of the frieze of American history. Brumidi finished his painting at St. Stephen's but died in 1880 before he could complete his Capitol frieze.

Beyond its artistic merit, St. Stephen's played a role in New York's religious and political life. In 1860, it was the largest Catholic parish in the country with 24,000 members. The pastor at the time, Edward McGlynn, had an interest in the arts and brought Brumidi to the church. Later McGlynn became active in social and economic issues of the day, taking positions that ran counter to the teachings of the Catholic Church at the time. This led to his excommunication and departure from St. Stephen's.

So, given such an illustrious architectural, artistic and social history, why hasn't the landmarks commission acted on the designation? After all, no one has publicly come out in opposition to the idea.

For one thing, the building has not been in any immediate danger. My experience with the Landmarks Preservation Commission is that it rarely rejects a building for landmarks designation after holding a public hearing. Even if there is not enough support to landmark the building, the commission will usually not vote to deny the application -- unless the owner wants to tear the structure down. This seems to largely be a question of staff and money. Even in good financial times, certain city agencies get the short end - and the Landmarks Preservation Commission is among them. In the case of St. Stephen's, the Archdiocese of New York, which owns the building, has never expressed any interest in altering or destroying it. And so the landmarks commission has never been forced to act.

And landmarking St. Stephen's poses at least one major problem. The hearings in the 1960s dealt with designating the exterior of the building a landmark, but much of the current research and interest in the building centers on the interior, particularly the murals. The city's landmarks law does allow that interiors or parts of interiors of buildings be designated as landmarks - but, perhaps because of constitutional concerns about the separation of church and state -- not if the building is an active house of worship. And mass is still held at St. Stephen's every day.

A campaign is underway to raise millions of dollars needed to restore the murals. Some of the framed paintings have already been restored. Apparently there are some federal funds available to restore interiors of houses of worship - as long as the money goes to art and architecture, rather than promoting religion. Protecting the exterior of the church by designating it a landmark might generate publicity that would help the fundraising campaign for the murals.

This year, two things sparked renewed interest in getting landmark status for St. Stephen's. One is the Brumidi bicentennial. The 200th anniversary of his birth seemed to present a good opportunity for honoring Brumidi's work and doing what we could do, within the bounds of the law, to protect it. The other is that the archdiocese has been closing schools and merging churches. Although they have not said they have any plans to close St. Stephen's - which is already the result of a merger between two congregations - the downsizing has renewed concerns about the fate of St. Stephen's

Responding to these events, the community board examined the issue for about two or three months earlier this year. Then, we passed a resolution endorsing landmarks designation for the facade of St. Stephen's, supporting the restoration work on the murals, and urging that the interior be landmarked if St. Stephen's ever ceased to be a church. Our interpretation of the law is that the restriction on landmarking for churches, synagogues, mosques and so on only concerns active houses of worship. If the congregation was no longer in the St. Stephen's building -- even if the archdiocese still owned it -- we feel the interior would be eligible for landmarking, but I guess that would be for the lawyers to determine.

As much as the community board supports landmarking for the church, our role, unfortunately, is limited. The city charter gives the community boards only the authority to recommend. Our resolutions have the power to express the point of view of the community but they do not have the power of law.

This is in contrast to changes in land use or zoning, the city's process -- the Unified Land Use Review Process, or ULURP -- requires that the community board review and pass resolutions supporting or opposing the recommended change. The city does not have to follow our recommendation but the very fact that it is required by law to get our opinion gives our viewpoint more influence than it would otherwise have.

Decisions on landmarks, though, are not part of this process. The community board does not have to be consulted.

Any courtesy or consideration the Landmarks Preservation Commission gives to the community boards is voluntary on their part. Community Board 6 has passed resolutions asking that landmarks be put under some sort of review similar to ULURP where an application would have to go to the community board for recommendation before landmarks ruled on it. This would require that they have our input, but, unfortunately, this idea hasn't gone anywhere. In the meantime, we do try to consider any landmark decisions that arise in our area.

We have had more success with the so-called Certificate of Appropriateness, which comes into play when an owner wants to make changes to a landmarked building. Owners applying for one are told to first go to their community board. This is a voluntary process and a new policy, but, as far as we are concerned, it is working so far.

Despite the limits on our role in designating landmarks, we do get involved. St. Stephen's is one example. Another is Stuyvesant Town. Met Life, which owns the housing complex, is opposed to making the development a landmark, including the outside green spaces, or ovals. The community board did vote to landmark, but the Landmarks Preservation Commission has not yet put it on their calendar. When they do act on this, on St. Stephen's and on other landmarks issues on the East Side, we at Community Board 6 hope they will consider our recommendations.

Gary Papush is chair of the parks and landmarks committee of Community Board 6 on Manhattan's East Side.

 




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