Star-studded fundraiser battles congregation's plans for historic West-Park Presbyterian Church
A standing ovation echoed within the sanctuary as actors Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon and Missy Yager united to raise funds for The Center at West Park’s campaign to save the landmark from impending demolition.
"I was like you can’t tear this down, this is a treasure," said Mark Ruffalo. While Matt Damon expressed his deep connection, stating, “I love this place, I love this community, I love this space.”
In a dramatic turn of events, the West-Park Presbyterian Church, a venerable century-old landmark, is at the center of a star-studded fundraising effort. However, the unexpected twist lies in the fact that this initiative is in direct opposition to the congregation's plans to tear down the historic building for a new worship space.
The center says the first of two day performances has already amassed over $300,000, and it launched a $2 million capital campaign to address crucial building repairs. Debby Hirshman, the executive director, expressed a profound sense of responsibility to save the church.
“All the people who prayed here, all the people who led the churches, all the people who made sure civil rights was brought to New York, all the people who made sure the first gay marriage happened here, I owe it to them to protect it,” said Hirshman.
Founded in 2016, The Center at West Park emerged with the mission to preserve and revitalize the church as a community resource and artistic haven. Hirshman says the center would like to buy the building and based on the benefit, she’s confident they can raise the money. “It would be my privilege to raise those millions of dollars,” said Hirshman. The property is currently owned by the New York Presbytery. There’s a body of five elected members who run the church.
Marsha Flowers, a congregant since the mid-'90s, emphasized the financial challenges the church is grappling with, stating, “The fact of the matter is it takes a lot of money to fix this church.”
Flowers says the church currently has no pastor with six active members who meet regularly via Zoom. Over the years, she says the church has spent millions on upkeep but now funds have run out and they can no longer afford its costly renovations - they’ve had scaffolding up for years due to a crumbling façade.
The congregation found a potential solution in developer Alchemy Properties, which aims to create multiunit housing and a new worship space through the demolition of the existing building.
“There’s all these efforts to preserve the building, that’s obviously fine. But that’s not a church - the building isn’t the church, the church is the people and what they’re doing,” said Flowers.
With the building designated as a landmark in 2010, the congregation now requires approval for a hardship application from the Landmark Preservation Commission to proceed with demolition. Preservationists have challenged the application, questioning renovation estimates. The commission told News 12 that it does not comment on applications under review, but News 12 is told it's working its way through hearings, which includes public input. Hirshman says they’re willing to take whatever necessary steps to maintain the building. “The decision of a Landmarks Commission or any agency of the city can be appealed. My hope is that we can all come together and solve this together,” said Hirshman.
As the fate of this historic landmark hangs in the balance, awaiting the Landmark Preservation Commission’s final decision. Written public comments on the West-Park Presbyterian hardship application will be accepted through Nov. 21.