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Crossed out; Separation of church and estate

The city Landmarks Preservation Commission has OK’d the conversion of St Elias Church on Kent Street into condos. Much of the building will remain intact, but neighbors aren’t pleased that the church will lose its distinctive trinity cross.
The Brooklyn Paper / Alex Alvarez

A plan to convert a vacant Greenpoint church into condos is meeting with widespread approval, but neighbors are cursing a decision to remove religious icons from the landmarked house of worship — an alteration that the project’s architect said he made in hopes of not scaring away potential tenants.

Kent Street residents can’t figure why a developer needs to remove Greek Orthodox crosses from the rooftop and stained glass windows of St. Elias Catholic Church as part of a $7-million residential conversion, which will create close to 40 units.

“It’s obviously a church, so who cares if there is a cross on it?” said Joan Dougherty, who lives down the block from the 139-year-old cathedral. “The façade of the building was landmarked that way — why not leave it the way it is?”

But architect Alfred V. Saulo said that if he doesn’t remove the Christian symbols, they might drive away would-be tenants.

“[Leaving the crosses] could restrict individuals of certain religious denominations,” he said. “If it were a Star of David or something else, we would have the same kind of situation.

“It’s not a religious building anymore, it’s not a church,” he added. “There hasn’t been a congregation there for several years. It’s just a beautiful building that is deteriorating.”

According to broker Herbert Kliegerman, putting the church on the market without removing the icons would be heresy.

“The intelligent thing would be to remove the religious symbols because people not of that religious denomination might be hesitant to move in,” Kliegerman said. “And in this kind of a market, you really want to reach for whoever wants to show up.”

But architecture experts say that the rules for church conversions aren’t set in stone.

“I have seen places where the iconography is left, and I have seen places where it’s been removed,” said Andrew Know of the American Institute of Architects. “Generally, the stuff is left when it’s being sold to an individual buyer — someone who wants it to stay up. But when it’s going on the market, developers usually think twice about leaving crosses or other symbols because they might freak people out.”

That’s hardly been the case at Sanctuary — a 13-unit converted church on Cumberland Street between Lafayette and DeKalb avenues — where a Catholic icon on a stained-glass window has gone largely unnoticed, broker Kathryn Lilly said.

Before vacating the church, the congregation removed much of the religious iconography, but left the window adorned with a symbol reading “IHS” — the first three letters of Christ’s name in Latin. Embattled starchitect Robert Scarano decided to preserve the glass — a decision that seems to have paid off.

“That unit sold very quickly,” Lilly said. “Nobody said, ‘Oh, I love the apartment, but we’ve got to change the window.’”

And, if you look hard enough at the Scarano-designed Arches condos at the corner of Warren and Hicks Street, you can also spot religious icons.

“The idea is to have the charm of an old church without the religious connotation,” said senior project manager Tamar Kisilevitz, who noted that the crosses still visible at the Arches look more like X’s than traditional Christian symbols.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission gave the St. Elias project its blessings last week, greenlighting the plans — so long as Saulo nixes proposed solar panels from one side of the roof because they changed the look of the building too much.

Construction could be finished within two years, but it is too early to determine the prices of the market-rate units, Saulo said.

Neighbors aren’t happy about the removal of the crosses, but they remain optimistic that the conversion of St. Elias, which is between Manhattan Avenue and Franklin Street, will keep late-night revelers from milling about the sidewalk in front of the church.

“Generally speaking, we’re happy because it’s been vacant for more than a year,” said Kent Street resident Marena Nellos, who hopes that the renovation will displace the crowds of partiers who drink, shout, and urinate in front of the vacant former church on Friday and Saturday nights.

“We’re just urging them to get a 24-hour security guard, because if kids are hanging out outside, it’s only a matter of time before they get curious about what’s going on inside,” she said.

St. Elias certainly isn’t the first house of worship in the so-called Borough of Churches to be converted into homes. Embattled starchitect Robert Scarano converted St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, at the corner of Warren and Hicks streets in Cobble Hill, into the Arches condos in 2005. And in May, a former church and rectory on Cumberland Street between Lafayette and DeKalb avenues will hit the condo market as the Sanctuary.

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