Holy site gets last rites: Locals weep for D’Park church after landmarking effort fails

Holy site gets last rites: Locals weep for D’Park church after landmarking effort fails
Photo by Zoe Freilich

This church is history.

Ditmas Parkers are mourning what remains of a century-old neighborhood church that a developer started bulldozing after city preservationists rejected locals’ initial push — and subsequent appeal — to landmark the building.

Builder the Mutual Housing Association of New York began razing the Baptist Church of the Redeemer at 1921 Cortelyou Rd. last month to make way for a nine-story, mixed-use complex of predominantly below-market-rate apartments, leading some residents to blast the Landmarks Preservation Commission for too quickly sacrificing the ancient structure on the alter of so-called affordable housing.

“Sensible development and potentially valuable programs should not require razing a 100-year-old church in the neighborhood,” said Harry Bubbins, a member of advocacy group Respect Brooklyn, which fought to save the holy house.

Bubbins and fellow preservationists first asked the commission to landmark the ca. 1919 church in March after news of its sale spread.

But the agency in April ruled that the aging house of worship was not architect Frank Helmle’s best work, according to a spokeswoman, who said that officials already landmarked some of Helmle’s more-notable buildings, such as St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church in Bushwick, and the Bossert Hotel, which sits within the Brooklyn Heights Historic District.

“We appreciate the importance of the building to its community, but in a city the size of New York, with its many religious structures, the commission must be very selective in choosing examples of this building type for designation as individual landmarks,” said Zodet Negron.

The locals appealed that ruling, however, calling out the commission for neglecting the role of another esteemed 20th-century architect, Harvey Corbett, in designing the Baptist Church of the Redeemer as Helmle’s partner on the project — a collaboration the agency acknowledged it did not take into consideration in making its first decision, according to a Sept. 4 letter sent to Respect Brooklyn regarding its appeal.

But the commission ultimately rejected the Hail Mary attempt, citing the church as “architecturally modest” compared to other landmarked Helmle and Corbett structures, and as of last weekend, wrecking balls had reduced it to a few partially standing walls.

The developer shelled out $5 million to buy the property from pastor Rev. Sharon Williams, and plans to reserve all but one of the 76 units in its new building for affordable-, senior-, and supportive-housing — the latter available to homeless, mentally-ill, or other vulnerable people who pay a portion of their annual income to occupy the apartments.

The reverend, who arrived at the house of worship in 1984, chose to sell it largely because the congregation could not foot the $2-million bill to repair the crumbling church, where she was forced to shutter services including a soup kitchen, day-care center, and after-school program as it deteriorated, she said.

“Over the years we had to shut down the day-care center, the after-school program. We had to move our soup kitchen out,” Williams said. “This building has been a wreck since we got there.”

But the pastor isn’t abandoning her flock — the site’s new building will also include a smaller, modern chapel, where Williams intends to reinstate services such as the soup kitchen, as well as start new initiatives including a reading program, when it opens, which could be as soon as the fall of 2020, she said.

Still, Williams said watching her once-stately church disappear from the neighborhood made her think twice about giving her final blessing to its destruction.

“When we saw the steeple come down, that’s when it got to me,” the reverend said. “But I’m okay now.”

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixs[email protected]glocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.
Photo by Zoe Freilich