Karrie Jacobs


June 12, 2008

All Steeple, No Church

The remains of St. Ann’s Shrine Armenian Catholic Cathedral.

As I was walking along E. 12th St. one night a few weeks ago I was startled by the sight of an old church tower and entryway standing sans church in front of yet another luxury high rise. The scene brought to mind the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Macau, which is a single 17th C. stone facade propped up by elaborate scaffolding. While he rest of St. Paul’s was destroyed by fire (or a series of fires), the rest of St. Ann’s was demolished by a developer.

The Catholic Church* which owned the property — originally built in 1847 as a Baptist church and later used as a synagogue — sold it for $15 million in 2004 to Hudson Companies. Following the sale, local preservationists staged an unsuccessful effort to have the church designated as a landmark.

Now, there are a lot of different ways in which historic buildings can survive an overheated real estate market. The current strategy, one I don’t mind so much, is building something new on top of something old. The biggest example of this is Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower atop Joseph Urban’s old Hearst headquarters. But smaller scale examples abound (see photo below). While this strategy has a way of pissing-off preservationists, the aesthetic dissonance strikes me as honest. You can clearly see where the architecture of one era ends and the next era begins.

There’s another strategy that was used a lot in the 1980s, where developers would demolish everything but the main facade of a historic building and drop a whole new building behind it. I’ve never especially liked that approach because it strikes me as deceptive; the old building is no longer old, and the new building isn’t exactly new. That seems to be the strategy in play on E. 12th. My best guess is that the vestigial remains of St. Ann’s are supposed to function as an entryway to the luxury apartment tower, but it’s hard to say just how that might work.

At the moment, the scene on E. 12th is a little disconcerting, like there’s recently been a hurricane or a war.

*The Catholic Church has been offloading a lot of property in recent years. Here’s one that got away. And courtesy of Mark Lamster, we have radio god Harry Shearer’s explanation for the number of churches on the market. Says Lamster, “The classic bit comes in at about 19:30. When I heard it, last summer, I was laughing so hard I almost drove off the Taconic. ”

A modern addition at E. 13th and University Place.