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NY’s Abandoned Churches: Should We Destroy Them to Build More Supermarkets?

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The Fate of Abandoned Churches in Upstate New York

Unique Ways to Preserve These Marvels of Architecture

The Destruction of St. Patrick's Church in Watervliet. Photo Courtesy of Michael DeMasi-The Business ReviewThe demise of churches has altered the landscape of suburbs and changed the character of Main Street. Communities in cities, towns and rural areas in upstate New York are forced to find other means of making use of these buildings. Can we save our cultural heritage from developers like John Nigro who managed to convince Watervliet city officials to take a lump sum of money to build a new Price Chopper in favor of restoring St. Patrick’s Church, a historic landmark built in 1840?

Lack of attendance and shift in resources caused The Archdiocese of New York to develop a realignment plan in 2006 that targeted more than 50 churches throughout the state to close; some denominations and religious groups decided that it made more economic sense to close the churches instead of maintaining the upkeep.

Many preservation groups want to resuscitate places of worship into feasible buildings where residents and local businesses can better utilize the space. There is a growing trend of churches that have been remodeled and made into theaters, community centers, art studios, businesses and even homes.

St. John the Baptist, Schenectady’s oldest church, was converted into a theater in 2009 by the Schenectady Light Opera Company (SLOC). Two years later, SLOC put on their first show and on opening night according to The Schenectady Daily Gazettemembers of the church were in the audience.

“We wanted to honor the community that built the church and the history here,” said John Samatulski, SLOC’s part-time director.

Richard Johnson, who served as parish council president, said the reuse of the building had lessened the blow to parishioners.

Jaimen McMillan, with the help of structural engineers, his wife Dorothea and family renovated the former St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and converted it into The Arts Center on the Hudson in Mechanicville.

“We saw this architectural gem just falling apart,” McMillan said in an article published in Community News Weekly. “The high arched ceilings are absolutely beautiful to behold. We didn’t want to see it slowly rot away and we took to saving it.”

The large gray stones that had fallen to the ground, making depressions in the grass, are now secure alongside the gabled roof as towers. McMillan quadrupled the amount of electricity coming into the building, fixed the heating, installed spacious restrooms and re-cemented the foundation.

As a result of McMillan’s hard work, the arts’ center is not only home to many community functions such as concerts, art exhibits, and theatrical performances but is also in the wedding business. A Wedding on the Hudson is a secular place for couples to get married.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Syracuse planning commission allowed out-of-state treasure hunters to remove valuable Tiffany stained-glass windows in hopes of saving South Presbyterian Church, a protected historic site which has $50,000 in back taxes.

Unfortunately, residents believe the church’s long-term future is doomed without the original windows. “We are going to have to work the best we can with the owners of the property to see what can happen,” said Kate Auwaerter, preservation planner for the city, in an article published in the Syracuse Post Standard.

The Church of the Transfiguration in Buffalo, which features a 180-foot bell tower built 1897 in Gothic-revival style, has been abandoned for 22 years. In 1994, the diocese got a permit to demolish the church; but Paul Francis Associates purchased it for $7,000 with the intent to restore the building. is a website that keeps track of buildings that have been abandoned across the country, describes how the church had some repairs made to the roof and the stained glass.  The $100,000 community block grant that had been allocated to the restoration of the church was diverted to other projects.

Of the buildings we pass on the street every day – banks, schools, municipalities, and stadiums, churches are the most important structure, for they represent the heart of a congregation or parish. Society built these public places of worship to impress not only the masses, the divine eyes of the Lord and his angels but visitors, perhaps those that have traveled and seen the mother of all cathedrals, Notre-Dame.

“The mother art is architecture,” Frank Lloyd Wright said.  “Without an architecture of our own we have no soul of our own civilization.”

If the hope of any sustainable community is to maintain the character that its forefathers had built, then the reuse of forsaken churches should be a priority to those with an invested interest.

Susan Holland, executive director of Historic Albany, spoke at a conference in March at the Carey Center for Global Good in Rensselaerville.

“Churches are also community centers,” Holland said in the article “Vacant churches pose unique challenge,” posted in The Schenectady Daily Gazette. “They were made with such care and love. They were expensive to create, and they can’t be replicated. When you lose a building like that, it’s kind of like ripping the heart out of the center of the community.”

Diana Denner is a Contributor to The Free George. Photo Courtesy of Michael DeMasi-The Business Review

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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