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Illustration by Tomi Um

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Living on a Prayer

As developers buy up churches for condo conversion, what’s next for our houses of worship?

Even outside of sermons, Terry Starks often falls into the rolling cadences and exhortations of the pastor he has been for the past two decades, a declamatory tone that makes it easy to believe him when he says that God gave him the right to a 113-year-old, 48,000-square-foot church on New York City’s Upper West Side. Developers have been struggling to convert this building, initially called the First Church of Christ Scientist New York and then 1 West 96th Street, but now referred to in documents as 361 Central Park West, into luxury apartments since its sale in June 2014 for $26 million. But Starks knows a higher power is on his side, even in the secular arena of Manhattan real estate. "361 is a promise God made me. That building means to me what Israel means to the Jews," he says. "How are you going to turn God’s house into condos?"

361 CPW is a forbidding stone monolith on the corner of 96th Street just across from the park, anchoring blocks of stately condo buildings, the kind that come with individual names on their entrance awnings and multiple doormen. It was designed in 1889 by the firm Carrere & Hastings, who were assigned the project just after they won another commission to design the main branch of the New York Public Library. Photographs of the interior just after it was built show a grand space cut with barrel vaults and covered in Art Nouveau filigree. An enormous organ rises above the altar, below the words, "God is love and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God and God in him." The church was landmarked by the city in 1974. According to the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s original notice, the building "is indicative of the freedom of design achieved by the best architects working in the Beaux Arts tradition. Although they used classical elements they had learned to emancipate their designs from rigid restrictions."

Like other Christian Science churches, 361 CPW is squat and heavy, pre-Brutalist in its embrace of unornamented blocks of Concord granite. It doesn’t look like condo fodder. The building’s only large windows are on the lower floors of the structure and covered in elaborate stained glass by the artist John La Farge. Light enters the upper floors only through circular portholes and square apertures fit more for medieval archers than twilit dinner parties.

361 Central Park West. Photo by Anomalous A/Flickr.

Nevertheless, through an entity called 361 Central Park West LLC, owner Joseph Brunner, who did not respond to requests for comment for this article, has pushed his condo conversion through the LPC and the Board of Standards and Appeals against the opposition of preservationists and the neighborhood association, denying that the building could be profitably turned into anything other than apartments. Brunner’s efforts are much to the chagrin of Pastor Terry, who led a congregation at 361 CPW from 2007 to 2010 when it was owned by Crenshaw Christian Center, a Los Angeles-based ministry that bought the building from the Christian Science church in 2004 for $14 million and later sold it to Brunner’s LLC. The sale "was like when they tore down Solomon’s Temple in the Old Testament," Starks says. "When they left that building, people wept."

The fight over 361 CPW is symptomatic of New York City’s residential real estate boom—Manhattan property hit an all-time peak of $1,497 per square foot in the third quarter of 2015. The boom has meant that most any kind of building, from factories to firehouses, carriage barns, schools, and corporate offices, is liable to turn into condos, like a creeping architectural plague. Churches are the latest targets. A 2012 Wall Street Journal article noted the mounting popularity of such "religious conversions." A record $1.3 billion worth of religious properties were sold in 1,502 sales in 2014, according to the Christian Post; 2010 saw just 889 sales worth $578.9 million. Though the exact numbers of church-to-condo conversions aren’t tracked, "we tend to see it occur during development booms where the availability of building sites is limited but demand for anything with a roof over it is high," says Jonathan Miller, the New York real estate appraiser.

Call the church conversion a "chondo," to coin an inelegant portmanteau. The same qualities that once made churches cultural and artistic centers—their central locations in neighborhoods, their size, their vast windows and cavernous chambers—also make them perfect for a real estate market that commodifies light and space in the crowded city. Church attendance is also dropping precipitously. In 2014, a Pew survey found that almost 60 percent of older millennials go to church once annually or less, meaning religious buildings are more vulnerable to condoification than ever.

Though turning a church into a luxury residential commodity might seem sacrilegious, religious buildings have always functioned as trophies of power and capital, commissioned by pharaohs, kings, and emperors in Ozymandian attempts at immortality. The structures took generations or even centuries to complete—Cologne Cathedral in Germany was built over the course of 600 years—meaning their purposes are also liable to change over time.

Historically, churches most often became other churches. Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, which was built by the Byzantines as a Greek Orthodox cathedral in 537, became Roman Catholic under the Fourth Crusade from 1204 to 1261, converted to a mosque when the Ottomans invaded Constantinople on May 29, 1453, and was finally secularized as a museum in 1935. As architecture, churches are no more inviolate than abandoned Wal-Marts. Beyond apartments, the shells of churches might also house nightclubs (like Manhattan’s infamous Limelight, known for recreational drugs and murder), bookstores, art galleries, rock-climbing gyms, or offices, like those of the Internet Archive, in a former Christian Science church in San Francisco.

Two New York City churches, on West Fourth Street and Prince Street, that have been, or are being, converted into residential space.

The aesthetics of the converted church are similar to those of a post-industrial loft: high ceilings, big windows, and a sculptural excess of space. In fact, just as they once occupied factories, artists are turning to churches as the supply of empty industrial real estate has dwindled or become unaffordable. "Industrial spaces aren’t as easy to come by as they once were because real estate developers are on to that," says Sharon Butler, a painter who previously kept her studio in a church in Old Mystic, Connecticut. "Churches are sort of undiscovered. You can find a really big space and they’re relatively inexpensive, because who else is going to buy it?"

That the church is itself a work of art adds appeal. "Artists are people who pay attention to what things look like and how light falls on objects and how light changes color and space, so all of those things make artists inclined to fall in love irrationally with churches," Butler says. "But the reality is that a lot of the space is vertical rather than horizontal, and that makes it really impractical."

Cheap to acquire, churches are often expensive to renovate. Mike Lidgus, a retired aerospace engineer who is restoring and living in a former Christian Science church in Newburgh, New York, bought his building for $30,000 from the government. Repairs to the slate roof cost $50,000 and new copper piping $40,000. "There’s the reality of getting a good handle on what exactly this is going to cost, and it’s always going to be more than that," Lidgus says. Peter Wetzler, a composer who renovated a church in Kingston, New York, with his partner Julie Hedrick, paid $20,000 for a traditional Czech steeplejack to repair their steeple, after a contractor quoted $100,000.

Mike Lidgus

Under Catholic canon law, a church building must be deconsecrated before being used non-religiously. No specific ceremony is mandated, says Reverend John Coughlin, a professor of religious studies at New York University, but "there is often one final gathering of the community in the church. After the communal opportunity to say farewell, any sacred objects would be removed from the premises." Yet residents of a converted church might find themselves dealing with their building’s origins long afterward.

"You can use these spaces for whatever you want as long as you have a sensitivity and are prepared to answer to the people who used to worship there," says Mat Henderson, the founder of Xhurches (pronounced "ex-churches"), a Portland, Oregon, organization devoted to documenting church conversions. (Henderson lives in one himself.) Sensitivity is important, because converting a church to residential use often means privatizing a space that was previously communal property. "People would come up and peek in, they’d tell us about what it was once like," says artist Jer Thorp, who lived in a Vancouver church renovated by his then-girlfriend. "You’re living adjacent to a lot of stories that are owned by other people." Some of those people will likely wish the building had never changed.

Terry Starks grew up poor in Memphis, Tennessee, one of seven children with different fathers (he didn’t meet his own until 1987). He never got into trouble, he says, until he graduated high school and joined the Army in 1977. When he got out in 1980, dropped back into a difficult adult environment, he started selling drugs and eventually went to prison in Puerto Rico. "That’s where I got born again," he says, in October 1993. "They put me in the hold for one day. It brought me to my knees. An old lady came by and said, ‘Sir, can I get you anything?’ I said, ‘Yes ma’am, you can bring me a Bible.’ I opened it up and my life has never been the same."

Starks married his second wife, Lynda, got out of prison, started selling cars, got promoted, and moved on to managing the career of NBA player Penny Hardaway, at the time point guard for the Phoenix Suns. In April 1998, God spoke four words to Starks: "‘Fresh Start New Beginning,’ that was my assignment," he says, a gloss of II Corinthians 5:17, "Old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new." Starks followed Hardaway to New York and started his own ministry in 2004, but left for Crenshaw Christian Center at 361 CPW in 2007 at the call of Crenshaw founder Dr. Frederick K.C. Price, who became his mentor.

Inside 361 CPW circa 1909
First Church of Christ Scientist, published circa 1909
Courtesy of New York City Black and White

The Starks felt a deep connection with 361 CPW. "The first Sunday I went in there, my wife looked up at the ceiling and she said, ‘God give me and Terry something like this.’ We love old buildings, we love architecture," Starks says. "I immediately became immersed in the building itself," Lynda says. She researched its history, formed a church volunteer group, and started cleaning up by hand. "We went in and got rid of everything; scraped all the paint off the windows; found all the old knobs in the attic and replaced them; re-stained all the floors, always trying to maintain the integrity of the building," she says. They stripped new white paint off the wood doors and patched up fractured marble. "We truly loved it, had a passion for it, but understood that it didn’t really belong to us."

According to the Starkses, the congregation had stagnated under the 84-year-old Price, but it began to grow under Pastor Terry. Starks’s relative youth in his late 50s, fluency in worldly matters (pre-conversion, he founded a record label), and accessible message drew a younger crowd, up to 800 for weekly services and 2,000 parishioners in total. The flock was largely African-American, but became more diverse over time. Photos from Starks’s tenure show him in front of a crowd at the intricate wooden altar, parishioners in their Sunday best with arms upraised reaching toward him. "Because of the location everyone felt safe, everyone felt welcome," Lynda says. "I would hate to see that it becomes the total opposite of that, luxury condos no one can go into it but those people who can afford it, one percent of the population in New York."

That churches have become more valuable as apartments is a consequence of gentrification, which is more likely to impact historically African-American churches. Rising housing costs in Washington, D.C., have forced African-American churches to relocate along with their congregations or risk losing them. The same is happening in Philadelphia, where Pennsylvania’s oldest African Baptist church, First African Baptist, was sold to developers this year. "Black churches have to seek new locations," Terrence Griffith, the church’s pastor, told CBS. The trend highlights a painful contrast. While 361 CPW is considered for redevelopment, selling or converting a historically white church, like the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights, which was begun in 1892 but is still not landmarked by the city, would be unthinkable.

Inside The Convent in San Francisco.
Courtesy of Xhurches

In the midst of the struggle with gentrification, a confrontation between the two generations of the Crenshaw Christian Center church at 361 CPW seemed inevitable. "I hit the glass ceiling," Terry Starks says. He approached Price about getting loans and taking over the lease of the building for his own ministry, but Price declined. (Crenshaw Christian Center did not respond to requests for comment.) Rather than risk splitting the church, the Starkses moved to Atlanta in late 2010. "Dr. Price had been Terry’s mentor, we didn’t want that to end on a negative note. We were all devastated," Lynda says.

Attendance at Price’s church cratered, falling below 100 at services, and the mortgage became unaffordable. "Most members were hoping he would call Terry and say, let’s work something out, so the membership could keep their church," Lynda says. Price eventually called for a vote over whether to sell the building and downsize, but according to members, the church administration only sent the ballot to a few hundred parishioners they knew would vote in favor of the decision. (Price and his ministry have also come under fire for enriching themselves with parishioners’ tithes.)

"I was one of the people who agreed to sell the church because of how all the people that were part of the church presented it to us," says Derese Bitto, one of Price’s parishioners. "It wasn’t told to us that the plan was they were going to build condominiums. If I had known that I wouldn’t have agreed. Those condos are not going to help anybody."

The $26 million sale price was supposed to go toward a new home for the Crenshaw church, but "we basically moved from a mansion into a studio apartment," says parishioner and former church employee Ellen Carroll, who regrets the sale but didn’t feel she could speak out against it at the time. Crenshaw Christian Center East, as the New York branch is called, currently operates out of the sixth floor of an office building in the Garment District and holds services in the ballroom of The New Yorker Hotel.

The building sale was finalized in June 2014. On paper, the buyer was 361 Central Park West LLC, controlled by developer Ira Shapiro (who had previously defaulted on loans during his attempt to develop condos at One Madison Park). Shapiro was, it turned out, acting as a consultant for Joseph Brunner, and immediately flipped the building to him for $42 million. After trying and failing to flip the building again for $50 million, in November 2014, Brunner unveiled initial conversion plans that included adding 70 windows to the building’s facade and removing its stained glass, inching it toward generic Williamsburg chic. One Community Board member called the design "pockmarked." The church’s interior, which could not be landmarked because religious buildings can’t meet the accessibility requirements of the LPC, was also gutted, down to its Circassian walnut pews, which parishioners said were sold to a luxury car manufacturer.

As the condo conversion gained momentum, a parishioner named Gabrielle Everett, also a real estate agent, emailed Terry Starks asking him to return and fight for the church. "You have to be still until God tells you to move. When I got that email I knew it was my marching order," Starks says. "Georgia was preparation. Now I’m ready to do what God called me to do."

Just as with factory lofts, developers caught on to the bohemian marketing potential of converted churches. If the buildings were first the pet projects of artists and architects, they have now been industrialized, put into mass production. A city church can be gut renovated and dissected into any number of cookie-cutter, stainless-steel-appliance-equipped units, no matter how strange the shape. "Developers realized they can develop any kind of space," Sharon Butler says.

You’re living adjacent to a lot of stories that are owned by other people.

A building’s backstory is just another selling point, the same way a painting’s provenance might increase its value. Developer Francis Greenburger of Time Equities, along with Hamlin Ventures, is renovating 32-34 Prince Street, a former Catholic orphanage and parochial school in the heart of SoHo across from St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. The buildings will become a series of townhouses and loft apartments under the name The Residences at Prince, and prices start at $7.74 million for a three-bedroom condo. (The Archdiocese of New York sold the buildings for $30.7 million.) "The thing we liked about it is first of all the location and second of all the historic nature of these buildings," Greenburger says.

Greenburger’s plan replaces most everything but the stately neoclassical facade, though the lesser seen back of the building will be more explicitly modern. "This is like having a new person inside an old dress," Greenburger says. The developer himself lives in a gut-renovated brownstone in Greenwich Village. "I think that it is a wonderful feeling, to have the security, the reference, the beauty of being in architecture that represents a historic tradition but at the same time having an interior that is very modern, very contemporary, very comfortable."

32-34 Prince Street

The literal veneer of history that layers a converted building, whether factory or church, might be particularly appealing to gentrifiers because it acts as a kind of disguise. Outwardly, the neighborhood doesn’t change much; the old structure is still there, more or less recognizable. The conversion also imparts a sense of authenticity that a brand-new building never could. Residents can instantly feel part of the city’s long-term fabric just by writing a check.

The Archdiocese will use some of the money from the purchase to continue renovations on Old St. Patrick's, and the church will retain space in the new building. But walking around the site, a peaceful, quintessentially Manhattan block with an old brick wall that shrouds the cathedral from the street, it seems almost cruel that yet another large chunk of it would become private space. It’s all too easy to imagine St. Patrick’s itself turned into apartments and sold off by the square foot, the arched windows commanding top dollar.

For Terry Starks, the competition over 361 CPW presents an epic religious quest to lead his flock back into its promised land. For the developers, perhaps, successful condo conversion means restoring the property to another religion, the market, and receiving their pious reward in return. (It must also be said that there’s tax revenue to be had if 361 CPW becomes residential instead of another church.) As a metaphor for American spiritual crisis in the age of Trump, it’s almost too obvious. The city faces a choice of public or private, temple or palace.

In late 2014, a series of revisions requested by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to the developers’ design for 361 CPW resulted in fewer windows and the retention of some of the stained glass, though the outright religious imagery would be removed. But by the time the LPC approved the plans in March 2015, the case had caught the attention of preservationists as well as the building’s neighbors, the residents of 370 CPW, a condo building with windows less than 15 feet from the proposed church conversion. The neighbors were less than pleased. The Central Park West Neighbors Association hired Michael Hiller, the same lawyer who prevented Carrere & Hastings’ New York Public Library from destroying its stacks, to defend their case, arguing in part that the proximity would cause illegal tenement-like conditions. 361 CPW isn’t an isolated incident, Hiller says. "Landmarks in the city of New York are under attack everywhere."

"We were concerned with it from the get-go. The extent of the changes that were proposed, it always felt like a square peg in a round hole. The building was not designed to accept this degree of residential use," says Kate Wood, executive director of Landmark West, a non-profit that works to landmark and protect historic buildings on the Upper West Side. Alongside Hiller, Wood and her organization have advocated heavily against the 361 CPW conversion. "Our testimony is that there’s always another way," she says.

A rendering of the interior of 32-34 Prince Street.
Redundant Pixel

When the case came to the Board of Standards and Appeals, which interprets the meaning and application of building laws, 361 CPW LLC applied for variances that would allow the development to avoid certain zoning restrictions. The board grants variances "when compliance with zoning might present an economic hardship or practical difficulties," according to the city. The developers argued that the very factors that make the building a landmark—its location, structure, age—mean they should be cut a break. Given the expense of LPC-approved renovation, they also argue that there is no other way the building will be adequately profitable save building condos, despite previous offers from Manhattan’s Children’s Museum and various religious groups to buy the building. The developers estimate the condo sales will bring in $100 million, a number that opponents find hard to stomach as indicative of hardship. ("Which 100-year-old building in New York doesn’t need some work done on it? That’s what New York is known for," Starks says.)

"This was a breathtaking effort by the developer to buy a valuable landmarked building in order to exploit it," Hiller says. "You bought this building, you knew it was a landmark, and there’s been no demonstration that this building can’t be used as a church, as Pastor Terry wants to do, or a museum," Wood argues. The question, she says, is whose value is being preserved in the conversion of the church. "To prioritize the developers’ value over the value of existing residents is not right, and sets a very dangerous precedent."

Inside the Novare, a NYC church that was converted to a condo in 2006.

During the BSA hearings that stretched into late 2015 and this year, Starks and his parishioners made themselves known, adding momentum to the opposition. "People have come from all over, flying into New York just to be at these hearings. They’re very committed," Woods says. Hiller recalls the flock praying in the hallways of Spector Hall, where the BSA meetings take place. "We have all these people coming out who desperately want to use the church without changing it on the outside, without getting rid of the stained glass windows," the lawyer says of the flock. For all his enthusiasm, Starks is leaving the precise logistics of reclaiming the church up to a higher power. "It’s not my job to raise the money. It’s my job to believe for the money; it’s God’s job to raise the money," he says.

Delays and unexpected extensions have made the case harder for the opponents. Hiller presented papers demonstrating that the developers did not meet any of the requirements for the variances they were seeking and also failed to publicly disclose the list price of the property (the price they quoted privately to the Children’s Museum is said to exceed $50 million). On January 12, the BSA voted to close the case record and make a final decision by February 9. But the board then voted to defer another two weeks, and on February 19, the developer requested another delay, which was granted over objections.

On February 29, 361 CPW LLC announced they were withdrawing their application and asked that it be without prejudice, in order to reevaluate or submit new evidence for the variances. It seemed like a win for the opponents, but "they could bring the same application again," Hiller says. The BSA’s decision over the proposed withdrawal was then scheduled for March 8. Wood, Hiller, and Starks still hoped it would mean a resolution in their favor. But Mitchell Korbey, a land use lawyer for the LLC, later told Curbed that the developer is determined to turn the church into luxury apartments.

While traveling to New York for hearings over 361 CPW, Pastor Terry maintains his flock by hosting Bible study sessions, which also function as a referendum on the status of the church building. On March 8, the day of the BSA decision, I attend a session in the dingy first-floor community room of an apartment complex around the corner from Starks’s erstwhile church. The space’s drop ceiling, fluorescent lights, and linoleum floor present a stark contrast to 361 CPW, but around 100 people crowd the room in folding chairs, flipping through Bibles or scrolling for passages on their phones and iPads. Terry Starks stands tall and energetic at the front of the room in a glossy gray suit stripped to a vest, dabbing at his bald head as he proceeds through the sermon.

Starks ties each reading back to the church’s real estate plight, comparing the building’s hoped-for reclamation to Lazarus coming back from the dead. "The devil don't want to give up the territory. Help is going to come for 1 West 96th Street," he declaims. "This is the time for you to step to the plate and do what God calls you to do." Lynda, wearing a jewel-tone dress that resembles stained glass, steps forward with an update. "The BSA closed the hearing," she says.

Inside the Novare conversion.

This meant that 361 CPW LLC would be able to suspend their initial effort relatively easily and propose a new conversion plan or submit new variance evidence. The decision was "exactly what the developer wanted," Hiller later tells me.

The next BSA meeting on 361 CPW is scheduled for June 2. Terry Starks is unflagging. "We found out we have to go through the whole thing again," he says, his voice more triumphant than fatigued. He asks his flock to attend and protest once more. "You tell that board what the church means to you. We got three months for you to get a vacation date. Let ‘em know we’re coming to fight." The parishioners cheer in response.

After the Bible study, I walk toward Central Park to see 361 CPW in the fading dusk. The building looms darkly on its corner, devoid of activity. "Crenshaw Christian Center" is still printed in peeling letters on its awning and a signboard next to the entrance. Around the building, the sidewalks hum with families on evening promenade and joggers making their way into the park. Across 96th Street, the remainder of the facade of the Second Presbyterian Church, built in 1894, hunkers under the weight of 360 Central Park West, a 17-floor condo complex built in 1929 and currently under renovation, with prices up to $6 million for a four-bedroom home.

It’s easy to mourn the plight of 361 CPW because it’s such a concrete symbol of everything we’ve lost, or like to think we’ve lost, as a society—community, piety, faith. While the historic Upper West Side church could remain a church, the fact that it risks falling into the private market is a secular, capitalist cliché, regardless of how you feel about religion. Once, the light and space of the church represented holiness, a communal reach toward heaven. It now represents individual purchasing power.

There’s a 1955 poem by the British poet Philip Larkin called "Church Going" in which Larkin, widely regarded as agnostic if not atheist, describes the lightly transgressive appeal of wandering into an empty church and taking in the ghosts of its sacred space. Larkin wonders,

"When churches will fall completely out of use

What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep

A few cathedrals chronically on show…"

We’ve turned our disused churches into many things: homes, clubs, and temples to commerce. Others have become museums for posterity, as the poet suggests. But in its bones, a church will forever remain a church so long as some relic of it stands—a Gothic arch, vaulted ceiling, or classical cornice, a hint of past grandeur. The buildings have an enduring spiritual significance, even in other forms, even for non-believers. In lines that echo the timeless feeling of gazing up at 361 CPW from the sidewalk, Larkin continues,

"…I wonder who

Will be the last, the very last, to seek

This place for what it was

This special shell? For, though I've no idea

What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,

It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognized, and robed as destinies.

And that much never can be obsolete…"

Editor: Sara Polsky
Illustrator: Tomi Um


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