I was walking down St. Nicholas Avenue, my mind mostly occupied with where I might get a bite to eat, when I caught a glimpse of this church. I’d never seen anything like it, so I went over to take a look.
There were strong, new gates blocking easy entry, and the panels where the stained glass should be seemed temporary, just to keep out the weather. There were no signs anywhere, no indication of whose church it was or what it might become. The building seemed to be in a holding pattern, biding its time.
It is (or was) the church of St. Thomas the Apostle, built in 1907 to serve the Irish Catholics of central Harlem, just a few years before the Great Migration of southern blacks to the urban north would transform the neighborhood.
The facade has three principal elements: a basic field of tawny orange brick, a projecting porch and gallery in the Venetian Gothic style and a colossal headdress of spiky terra cotta, more in the perpendicular Gothic style of England. In “The A.I.A. Guide to New York City,” Norval White and Elliot Willensky called it “berserk eclecticism reminiscent of the filigrees of Milan’s cathedral or of many Flemish or Venetian fantasies.”
“It is unnameable but wonderful,”‘ they wrote.
The story is a familiar one. The parish shrank and shrank and finally vacated the premises in 2003. These days, there’s not much use for big, dilapidated public spaces like churches or movie houses, no matter how glorious (and beloved) they are. The next year, the archdiocese announced a plan to build affordable housing for the elderly on the site, and had gotten as far as dismantling the terracotta work on the exterior; the uproar was loud enough that the city put a halt to that (through a stop-work order hinging on problems with the scaffolding permit).
Here’s how the Times described the stand-off in 2004: “While exquisitely praised by architectural historians, the 1907 neo-Gothic church, with its graceful spires and rich Harlem history, does not have landmark status, and little could stop the archdiocese from tearing it down. But without money from HUD, it was not clear whether the archdiocese would move forward with the project.” As for HUD, it required the local powers sign off on the deal, which they wouldn’t do. In the years that followed, preservationists continued to fight to make the church a landmark, but didn’t prevail.
Years passed, the market got hot, then cold, then hot. The building deteriorated, but it stood. In this case, the bureaucracy demonstrated the effectiveness of its methods: delay, delay until a compromise comes along.
That compromise came along in 2012, when Artimus, a private development company, bought the property from the Catholic Church for $6 million. By early 2014, the developers had forged an agreement with the community board and the city. Artimus would restore the church building for use as a community arts center and make its money on 147 units of new housing on the site of the school, next door. The board threw in a few extra floors over the zoning limit, to sweeten the deal. The City Council officially approved the rezoning of the site on June 26, 2014.
The missing stained glass windows—built by Mayer of Munich, “stained glass maker to the Holy See”—had been carted off by the original owners and put to use in a new church building for the growing parish of St. Kateri Tekakwitha in Lagrangeville, upstate.
As of today, for whatever reasons, the old school building, leased by a charter academy, is bustling, and the old church building, as it has since 2003, sits quietly and waits for what comes next.