Steeple Chase

Within Riverside Church, in the ground-floor library, lies a two-volume work so explosive, so controversial, that it threatens to rip open a schism between the 68-year-old institution and its traditional constituencies. It is not a heretical religious tract but a master plan – two years in the making and unveiled last September – that details as much as $25 million worth of proposed changes to the church complex, including a new five- or six-story building. James Forbes Jr., senior minister at the multi-denominational and multiracial church, calls the plan an extension of Riverside’s “prophetic ministry, a way to better serve the community in the next millennium.” But local preservationists, who, along with supporters of other liberal Upper West Side causes, have always been allies of the socially active church, are outraged.

In their view, the Gothic church – modeled on the cathedral at Chartres – is a precious architectural artifact that must be protected. Shortly after the master plan was made public, a group calling itself the Friends and Members of Riverside Church filed a request for a hearing with the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. Dorothy Watson, a 30-year member of the congregation, is spearheading the landmarking effort and has enlisted a number of key supporters, including noted preservationist Michael Henry Adams. And though church officials insist the plan is only a wish list, Watson argues that the fact they spent six figures on the study proves their intent to implement it.

Hearing about the preservationists’ request, Riverside officials held a brief discussion with their congregation, then passed a resolution against landmarking the church and informed the commission of their position.

Such peremptory debate aroused the ire of some of the church’s neighbors. Maritta Dunn, the head of Community Board 9, accuses Forbes of acting in bad faith. “On February 26,” she says, “he sent us a letter stating he wanted to discuss the matter of landmarking with us. But by February 23, his council had already passed a resolution rejecting landmarking status.”

Forbes, for his part, admits he’d like to keep the discussion within the church, where additional meetings have been scheduled (though he refuses to hold one with the community board.) “If you were quarreling with your husband, would you want the neighbors to come in and resolve it?” Forbes asks.

“That’s a very big mistake,” says Carolyn Kent, co-chair of Board 9’s Landmarks Committee. “It demonstrates the church’s desire to evade public scrutiny. And this church was founded on exactly the opposite set of principles. The building belongs to all of New York.”

Landmarking has long been a thorny issue for churches. Though commercial landlords often accept it in exchange for the tax relief that it brings, houses of worship, which are already tax-exempt, tend to regard its restrictions as a hindrance to growth. In 1993, the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem debated long and hard before finally agreeing to accept landmark status. A private preservation group quickly rewarded the church with a grant to redo one set of stained-glass windows. But misgivings still linger: The Reverend Dr. Calvin Butts says that the church is planning to replace other stained-glass tableaux of figures that “do not reflect the ethnicity of the congregation.” He won’t remove the Eurocentric images without first going through the landmark review, he says, “but if we lose, we are prepared to go ahead.”

Preservationist Anthony Wood, a veteran of many landmark wars, believes that Riverside Church’s problems “could be quietly resolved. City landmarks chair Jennifer Raab has demonstrated concern about owners. The church could probably strike a compromise.” Last week, the Reverend Brenda Stiers, a Riverside minister, did sit down with Raab, but Stiers is still tight-lipped about the church’s willingness to compromise. “This is a separation-of-church-and-state thing,” she says. “The congregation has ultimate say over church property.”

Steeple Chase