Seeking salvation: Ditmas Parkers stage landmarking push to save church from destruction

Seeking salvation: Ditmas Parkers stage landmarking push to save church from destruction
Photo by Trey Pentecost

It’s the borough of one less church.

Developers will demolish a nearly century-old Ditmas Park house of worship to make way for a residential complex unless city preservationists initiate a last-minute landmarking effort to save the building that neighbors cherish, according to one man praying for the structure’s salvation.

“This is a very dire case that requires action swiftly,” said Ditmas Parker Harry Buggins, a member of the advocacy group Respect Brooklyn, which is fighting to save the site. “To bulldoze and demolish an almost 100-year-old church that’s been a mainstay of the neighborhood for a century is short-sighted to say the least.”

Leaders of the Baptist Church of the Redeemer at 1921 Cortelyou Rd. struck a deal with bigwigs of self-proclaimed affordable-apartment builder the Mutual Housing Association of New York to tear down the holy house in order to erect a nine-story, 76-unit building that some critics complain will dwarf its four-story neighbors.

“The scale of the neighborhood will be totally different with that building there,” said Nicole Francis, who lives behind the church on nearby E. 19th Street.

The developer-owned rental complex on the church-owned land will almost entirely contain a mix of affordable-, senior-, and supportive-housing units — the latter being reserved for homeless, mentally-ill, or other vulnerable people who pay a portion of their annual income to occupy the apartments.

And the proposed structure may tower over its neighbors, but its planned height complies with the area’s current zoning laws, so the builder only needs standard permits from the city to kick off construction.

But Department of Buildings officials have yet to sign off on an application to bulldoze the pews that the developer filed in February, giving members of the Landmarks Preservation Commission a window to delay its destruction by setting a date for a public hearing that would kick-off the process to determine the church’s eligibility for landmarking.

The chances of the city agency stepping in at this stage are slim, however, given its reputation for being notoriously slow to consider new preservation proposals, according to a history buff.

“People have been born and gone to high school waiting for landmarks,” said Simeon Bankoff, chief of the private preservation organization the Historic Districts Council. “I’m not going to sugarcoat, it’s a heavy lift.”

Landmarks Commission members are reviewing a request to designate the Baptist Church of the Redeemer for preservation, according to a spokeswoman, who didn’t say whether the agency will expedite the process given the looming threat of demolition.

And the fact that the congregation is actively involved in the development likely won’t help locals’ landmarking effort, according to Bankoff, who said that the city preservationists may also shy away from interfering with a proposal to create new housing for Brooklyn’s neediest.

“That’s always problematic, and we see it time and again throughout the city,” he said. “Churches often don’t have the money to maintain their very impressive and historic old buildings, and they pursue very good works. It’s a tough call.”

Last month, the leader of the church’s flock, Reverend Sharon Williams, closed its doors to her congregation, directing them to worship at the nearby Emmanuel Church of God on Flatbush Avenue instead, she said.

The reverend understands why folks would want to save the building, but said it’s time they let it go, claiming her small parishioners can’t afford to foot the church’s roughly $2-million renovation tab.

“It got to the place where we couldn’t serve our community in the building,” Williams said. “We had to shut down all the ministries we had there.”

Famed architect Frank Helmle built Cortelyou Road’s Baptist Church of the Redeemer with business partner Harvey Corbett in 1919, following the former draftsman’s work on other notable buildings including Brooklyn Heights’ Bossert Hotel — the so-called Waldorf-Astoria of Kings County — and St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church in Bushwick, which the city designated as a landmark in 2016.

And although the Ditmas Park church boasts a simple brick facade, observers who take a closer look will find far more intricate features including Art Deco embellishments, stained-glass windows, terra-cotta roofing, and a grand bell tower, according to information compiled by Respect Brooklyn.

If the developer proceeds with constructing the residential complex, it will erect a small, modern chapel that adjoins the nine-story building, but Francis said the new space wouldn’t hold a candle to the existing structure.

“I saw the rendering — it’s a white box,” she said. “I don’t know who would want to tear down a beautiful historic church and replace it with a white box and a nine-story building.”

Williams, however, said locals should look forward to the new facility — if for no other reason than they can actually use it.

“We love it,” the reverend said. “We’ll be able to do a lot of stuff: service for women coming out of shelters; a reading program for children;, a shower ministry for people who don’t have a place to bathe. The building is made for people, and that’s how it’s going to be used.”

And the Baptist Church of the Redeemer isn’t Brooklyn’s only religious site that preservationists want to landmark to avoid the wrecking ball. Down in Dyker Heights, parishioners of St. Rosalia Catholic Church recently requested the city to consider saving their beloved house of worship after its pastor announced the property would be sold without the building on it, and other locals are pushing to protect the city-block-sized Angel Guardian home campus, which they fear will be leveled by its new owner to make way for more apartments.

Reps for the Mutual Housing Association of New York did not return a request for comment.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.