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Fear for Green Church’s hidden history - Cornerstone contains time capsule full of 19th-century artifacts

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As the wrecking ball continues to hover over the Green Church, some of the activists who had worked to save the venerable structure are turning their attention to something it contains – a time capsule inserted into the church’s cornerstone in 1899.

That capsule, according to an article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on October 22nd of that year, contained a variety of items of historical value.

“In the little copper box which was placed in the corner stone were a bible, a hymn book, a book containing the names of the members of the Ladies’ Aid Society, the Epworth League and the Building Committee; a photograph of Simon De Nyse, now deceased, a pioneer Methodist in the Bay Ridge section; a history of the church, a picture of the first church of the Methodist denomination in the vicinity, which was erected on Cowenhoven’s lane in 1830; a picture of the second church, which stood on Stewart avenue, and a photograph of the present church. There was also a copy of a newspaper, containing the account of the capture of Manila by Dewey, in the box.”

“If we can get something from history left out of this, then it’s something everybody benefits from,” said preservationist Ron Gross, a member of the Committee to Save the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church, which has been fighting to save the beloved 109-year-old sanctuary that stands at the corner of Fourth and Ovington Avenues.

“We don’t want to lose our history,” Gross went on. “We’re losing enough already, so hopefully, the pastor will feel that the history of his congregation is worth preserving.”

“It would be a shame to destroy it,” agreed City Councilmember Vincent Gentile, who has worked feverishly over the past couple of years to broker deals that could provide the congregation with the funding it requires while still saving the sanctuary.

“The time capsule was put in so future generations could get a sense of what life was like when the church was built,” he went on. “There’s no reason to believe that the church wouldn’t do the right thing by preserving the cornerstone.”

“I’m all for the congregation and the pastor trying to find it,” added Assemblymember Janele Hyer-Spencer. “They would be preserving a part of history.”

As this paper went to press, the sanctuary’s architectural details including stained glass windows had been stripped already, as the congregation prepared for the demolition of the sanctuary. In fact, they had applied early in September to the Department of Buildings (DOB) for a demolition permit; that application was still on hold at press time.

Nonetheless, the concept of the time capsule is “kind of ironic,” said Victoria Hofmo, the founder of the Bay Ridge Conservancy and a member of the committee. “To me, it’s a small part of everything else, but it’s indicative of what the original people wanted for the building. They built it to last.”

Pending the demolition, which must be done by the church, the property on which the church and its two companion buildings stand is being sold by the congregation to a developer, Abe Betesh of Abeco Realty, for $9.75 million.

The congregation has said it will use the funds raised from the sale of the property to build a new, easy-to-maintain and environmentally friendly sanctuary on a portion of the property, as well as to advance its mission.

Gentile brought three different proposals to save the sanctuary to the congregation’s attention.

In the first, developed before the congregation reached a deal with Betesh, the Con Edison Renaissance Project would have left the church intact, and built affordable senior housing on the remainder of the church property, handing that back to the congregation, with an income of about $300,000 per year.

The second proposal, put together by Omni New York LLC, would have matched Betesh’s purchase price, according to Gentile, “under the condition that the developer would be able to obtain state and/or federal financing for the development of affordable senior housing on the property,” while retaining the sanctuary for a performing arts center.

This proposal – which would have allowed the congregation to retain a portion of the property to build a new church — would have required a 90-day delay while financing was sought. However, it fell apart over a disagreement as to whether $250,000 put in escrow by Omni “would be refundable if government financing was not possible,” according to Gentile.

The third proposal, put together by the Engel Burman Group, would have allowed the congregation to retain ownership of the property. The plan involved the construction of a new church, senior housing and a medical center on the property, and would have kept “most of the façade of the church,” said Gentile.

It also would have allowed Betesh “to recoup some of his investment,” the councilmember said, noting, “Engel Burman is still in discussion with Abe Betesh, at least until demolition occurs. The church has not taken a formal vote on this proposal.”

The pastor of the church, the Reverend Robert Emerick, could not be reached by press time.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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