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Historic church may become one for the ages

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One of the most revered churches in Williamsburg is on its way to becoming a city landmark.

St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, at the corner of S. Fifth and Rodney streets, moved forward last Wednesday in the city process to determine whether it should be protected for posterity with landmark status.

The red-brick church building, built in 1885, served the core of Williamsburg’s German population well into the 20th century. And the wealth of that community is reflected in the opulant Romanesque Revival design by J. Cleaveland Cady, the famed architect of the American Museum of Natural History, who was commissioned by the local beer barons and business leaders.

“It’s an absolutely fantastic building,” said Community Board 1 Land Use Committee Chairman Ward Dennis. “In this neighborhood, where so much change is happening, it is important to look back and recognize the history of Williamsburg and how it has developed.”

The Landmarks Preservation Commission, which oversees the designation and preservation of the city’s historic buildings, had researched the church’s architectural history before determining that it would be a candidate for preservation. The city agency did not reveal a date for the public hearing or timeline for its eventual decision, but the process typically takes several months.

Landmarks spokeswoman Lisi de Bourbon said that the benefits of historic designation are “quite enormous,” because it “assures the long-term stability” of the neighborhood and its street, providing a “tangible link” to the neighborhood’s past.

That is the reason why members of its current congregation and several local residents have demanded landmark designation for the Lutheran church. Church representatives and local preservationists warn that the church could succumb to a dismal fate similar to the site of the former Commodore Theater, a nearly 90-year-old movie palace around the corner on Broadway that was demolished in 2007.

“Their hope is that by listing it [as a landmark], it opens up more avenues of funding so they can maintain the building,” said Dennis.

Of course, for many Williamsburg residents, the church is already a landmark.

“I’ve gone to so many sweet sixteens in there,” said Rob Solano, the executive director of Churches United for Fair Housing.

Two congregations currently share the church. A Spanish-speaking Lutheran congregation, which meets on Sunday mornings, and a Presbyterian ministry called Resurrection Presbyterian Church, which worships on Sunday nights. Both groups support landmark designation.

Updated 4:37 pm, June 3, 2015
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