By Keenan Chen and Katryna Perera
For more than a decade, the fierce debate over the granting of landmark status to a 19th-century church in downtown Flushing, Queens rolled on and on. But relief finally came at the end of March, when the New York City Council voted to approve the designation for the historic Bowne Street Community Church.
City Councilman Peter Koo was a driver of the effort and sponsored the legislation that designated the church, with its Romanesque Revival architecture style, as a historic landmark. According to his office, the church was “ripe for preservation,” noting that it is rare to find historical sites in the outer boroughs of the city.
For the church’s governing board, however, the designation was not a relief at all. Fearing the rising maintenance costs of keeping up with city requirements, the board had long been voicing opposition to the designation. At a public hearing organized by the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission in December, Pastor Aaron Chen, who also chairs the church’s governing board, argued against the designation. Joan McArthur, another member of the board, agreed. “The maintenance has to be in accord with the city’s standard, it’s going be expensive,” she said.
Under the law, however, the city doesn’t need approval from the owner to designate a building as a landmark. Nor would it provide any financial assistance in maintaining it after the designation, which usually makes maintenance works more expensive. And paradoxically, the owner of a landmarked building must obtain approval before starting any alteration, repair, or construction work.
Though the church’s governing board declines to discuss its finances, the transformation of the surrounding neighborhood seems to have had an effect on the board’s deliberations about landmark status. In the early 2000s, a condominium developer offered the board one million dollars—and a brand new church—in exchange for the entire property, which includes the spacious parking lot. Rev. L. D. Clepper, then chairman of the church’s governing board, was tempted by the proposal. According to a New York Times article in 2002, Clepper said, “his congregation had either to allow a developer to demolish its 1892 Romanesque Revival sanctuary and replace it with a new church and a 20-story luxury apartment building, or watch the dilapidated structure crumble brick by brick.”
When details of the proposal surfaced and were presented to the community board, however, local conservationists and some members of the congregation became upset. This is when the fight for landmark status began, according to John Liu, who represented the neighborhood on the City Council from 2002 to 2010 and now teaches public policy at Columbia University.
Amid heightened pressure from community activists, the church’s governing board did not take up the offer and the property was put on the city’s landmark “list” where it sat until this year when the Landmark Preservation Committee decided to address its backlog of items.
Asked if the church is still considering selling its parking lot, which is not included in the landmark designation, McArthur said she’s uncertain about other governing board members’ stance.
Bowne Street Community Church stands tall on a quiet street in the otherwise chaotic neighborhood of Flushing. On Sundays, groups of people can be seen entering and exiting the church as the schedule of services plays out.
Inside, the age of the church can be seen and felt, in the long wooden pews that creak when you sit on them, the musty-smelling carpet, and the sparkling stained-glass windows that were made by Tiffany & Co. and adorn the walls leading all the way up to the altar.
These features, for many, were a central part of the landmark argument. Anne Perl de Pal—an architect and a staff member at the nearby Bowne House Historical Society, which is not associated with the church—said she’s always worried about the church. “That’s a very valuable piece of land,” she said. “But on the other hand, that church is a very nice example of the Romanesque Style. And it also has a strong history that is linked to the John Bowne House.”
The John Bowne House was home to John Bowne, a prominent Quaker immigrant from Britain in the mid-1600s who helped promote the idea of religious tolerance in the then Dutch colony.
Walking through the neighborhood, Perl de Paul points to several mixed-use high-rises surrounding the church that have been built in the past few years. She had long worried that the church would be sold because of the booming real estate development happening in the neighborhood.
And according to Liu, this is not an uncommon fate, especially when maintenance costs skyrocket. “Because the owners aren’t able to keep up with the maintenance, it falls apart,” said Liu. “The city can’t force anyone to spend money and the city is not going to provide that money.”
And it is true. Take the Temple Gate of Prayer Synagogue, for example, which is located on the same block of the Bowne Street Community Church. It sold its parking lot to a condominium developer in 2006. And two blocks away to the west, the Macedonia AME Church allowed the Macedonia Plaza—a 14-story, mixed-use condo building—to be built on its former parking lot.
The city continues to push that properties be landmarked. Why? Liu says it adds historical value to the city as a whole. “The whole landmarking system is biased towards landmarking,” said Liu. “The landmarks commission is judged by how many places it can landmark every year. There is never any reconsideration of whether a landmark designation is causing an undue hardship.”
Meaning the hardship of maintenance costs. After a property or building is landmarked, any maintenance going forward must be approved by the city and Landmark Committee. Additionally, any repairs must maintain the original style and framework, which can prove to be quite expensive.
There are ways for landmarked buildings to receive financial help—either through the Landmarks Conservancy or local and state funds—but Liu said it would be difficult to appropriate such funds to a church such as Bowne Street due to the Constitutional doctrine of “separation of church and state.”
For now, however, the church seems to be in safe spot, with a still active congregation and support from the community.
“We in the community and also in the city council and the LPC, will help the church to find resources if they need to upgrade or fix anything in the building,” said Koo. “This is part of Flushing history. That’s why we have to preserve the old, historic, and especially beautiful buildings, so the younger generation can understand how people before them lived and how they worshiped.”