The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Thursday, July 10, 2003  

Manhattan Landmark Goes on the Block

Hey, you wanna’ buy a church?

Sit down, Sun Myung. You too, Father Escriva. Hold your calls, Father Maciel. I’m talking about a church building.

The First Church of Christ, Scientist, New York, located on the northwest corner of Central Park West and West 96th Street, can be yours for the entirely reasonable sum of $24 million, according to “For Sale: 1 Church, W. 96th St., Park Vu,” by David W. Dunlap in today’s New York Times.

It’s odd this article appeared in the Times today because, I swear, I was just thinking about this church yesterday and wondering why the congregation’s departure and impending sale of the building had not been reported upon. Lo and behold, as they say, there’s the article this morning.

I know this church well. I attended services there on and off while living in New York. And while I don’t know what the going rate for a church in Manhattan is these days, I know First Church sits on a great location -- a tad too far uptown to be fashionable, but right on the park and with two subway lines running directly underneath -- and that it’s every bit as beautiful as the Times article says, inside more than out: “a Beaux-Arts beacon . . . with a renowned stained-glass window by John La Farge, a Hutchings-Votey organ[,] and enough room under the broad barrel vaults for 2,200 worshipers.”

The members of First Church are leaving the building to join with Second Church of Christ, Scientist, New York, located down the street at Central Park West and West 68th Street, to form a new branch of the Mother Church. “It might be called the First Church, the Second Church[,] or the 17th Church, which is the next available number for a Christian Science congregation in the New York area,” Dunlap reports. (Actually, for sticklers, Dunlap means to say, “It might be called First Church, Second Church, or 17th Church...,” i.e., with the definite articles removed from his text. In Christian Science the definite article is used only with respect to the Mother Church, officially called The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, Massachusetts.)

It’s kind of sad when churches close, I think, though that has more to do with my dismay over the decline, or at least the changing demographics, of older East Coast cities. But of course such changes often cannot be helped. And First Church certainly doesn’t have enough members nor does it draw enough worshippers to justify the effort and expense of their maintaining such a building.

Dunlap writes:

Many congregations are struggling with the upkeep of great buildings -- both official and unofficial landmarks -- that were constructed to accommodate far more people than now fill the pews. These include the West-Park Presbyterian Church at Amsterdam Avenue and 86th Street and St. Thomas the Apostle Roman Catholic Church at 118th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue.

That certainly is true of First Church. On a given Sunday, 20 attendees -- filling 1 percent of capacity -- would have been considered a very strong turnout.

The reporter continues:

But few of these sanctuaries are as impressive as the First Church, which was designed by Carrère & Hastings, architects of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. Adorned by marble floors, mahogany wainscoting[,] and pews of Circassian walnut, the church has 47,000 square feet of space.

First Church of Christ, Scientist, New York
Photo: New York Landmarks Conservancy

The closing of First Church is particularly disheartening given its important role in the history of Christian Science, something overlooked in the Times report. First Church was established in 1886 by Augusta E. Stetson under the direction and guidance of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. The church edifice was begun in 1899 and completed in 1903. Stetson, however, having run afoul of Mrs. Eddy, was ejected from the church in 1909. Later, after Mrs. Eddy’s death, the board of directors of the Mother Church ordered Stetson’s home, abutting the church building on West 96th Street, destroyed as part of an effort to erase Stetson’s lingering influence on the Christian Science movement. The board viewed Steton’s prestige and following as a threat to its ever-aggrandizing role in the church, that growing role violating more than a handful of the directives Mrs. Eddy laid out in her last edition of the Manual of the Mother Church.

There’s just a little problem for those interested in the building: It has landmark status and as such, Dunlap reports, “the new owner will not be able to alter the exterior without approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.”

But like most Christian Science churches, First Church “has little explicit religious iconography.” There’s no cross or crucifix either inside or outside of the church, for example. That should make the edifice easier to sell. “It would be easily convertible by another religious organization,” Dunlap quotes of Barbara Stone, president of Regency Capital Realty.

As the Times notes, First Church has been put to many uses in recent years:

Congregation B’nai Jeshurun already uses the enormous sanctuary on the High Holy Days each year. The Crenshaw Christian Center has been holding Sunday services there since the Christian Science group [sic] decamped to 68th Street in January. And the New York City Church of Christ holds classes there.

Trinity School’s commencement exercises are conducted in the church, which has also been used as a set for the films “Seize the Day” (1986), “Mickey Blue Eyes” (1999)[,] and “Cradle Will Rock” (1999).

So what will become of First Church? I’m guessing either B’nai Jeshurun or the Crenshaw Center will buy it. The steeple, while lacking a cross, seems out of keeping with the typical image of a synagogue, but if B’nai Jeshurun, or another Jewish congregation, can live with it, that’s fine. (There also are passages from the New Testament and Mrs. Eddy’s writings chiseled on the interior walls, but these easily could be removed.) I know Crenshaw’s services were always very well attended. I haven’t seen their books, of course, but I would be surprised if they couldn’t manage the purchase. Regardless, it’s certain to remain a house of worship, with its exterior maintained pursuant to New York’s preservation laws. And that’s a good thing.

There’s no guarantee, though. Dunlap notes “[t]he building might remain a sanctuary or be used by a private school, university, museum[,] or other cultural institution,” but adds that realtors have a wider assortment of prospects in mind. While First Church, because of “its relatively low ratio of windows to floor area,” can’t be converted into apartments, Dunlap quotes Richard B. Baxter, executive managing director of Insignia/ESG, with respect to a related potential use: “Perhaps someone would buy it as a private home. We rule out nothing.”

A private home? Gee whiz, I’m really glad I don’t live in New York anymore.

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