BY THE VILLAGE SUN | As demolition work began at Middle Collegiate Church on Monday morning, ideas for what could someday rise at the site of its fire-gutted facade started to come a bit into focus.
According to Vickie Burns, chairperson of the East Village church’s governing body, actual design renderings of the future structure won’t be available until two weeks from now, on Dec. 3. That’s when the congregation will mark the three-year anniversary of the raging fire that destroyed the historic 1892 house of worship.
Reverend Jacqui Lewis, Middle Collegiate’s senior pastor, said part two of the build-back will be to refurbish the church’s water-damaged (from firefighters’ fire hoses) five-story townhouse around the corner at 50 E. Seventh St. Afterward, the building will basically be used for the same things as before — for programming and gatherings, such as choir and dance rehearsals, after-school and 12-step programs. In addition, a two-story social hall that connected the townhouse to the church also will be refurbished to create a space for church programming and worship services. This first phase of work will cost $10 million and is expected to take one year to complete.
Middle Collegiate currently holds its Sunday services at East End Temple, on E. 17th Street.
A key part of the build-back is for a ground lease to be signed for the actual church site. Lewis explained that Middle Collegiate will not sell this property, but instead is seeking a “partner” to take the ground lease and then help fund the building’s construction. The church would get use of some of this building’s space for a multipurpose sanctuary / amphitheater / gathering space, she said.
Middle Collegiate’s part of the structure would be known as the Center for Spirituality, Justice and the Arts. The new facility would also include a Freedom Rising School and a Center for Reparations and Racial Healing.
Ideally, the partnership is with a local organization, the reverend said, noting, “We hope that we can leverage our relationships with the community to find a partner.”
Lewis said this partner, for example, could be maybe a health facility, a low-income housing developer or something “education adjacent.”
Middle Collegiate, she said, would hold town hall meetings and do surveys to gather input from the community about what locals would like to see at the site.
Whatever kind of organization is chosen, she explained, the decision would depend upon “what can we do uniquely that the neighborhood feels no one else can do?”
“‘Call’ is where the world’s greatest needs and your greatest gifts meet,” she noted, along with Minister Amanda Hambrick Ashcraft, paraphrasing theologian Carl Frederick Buechner.
Construction of the center will be financed with roughly $15.5 million that the church is raising through its Middle Rising One Fund Campaign, which is expected to be fully collected by December 2025.
The church facade demolition is being done carefully, “by hand,” in order to salvage materials, a supervisor said, as he stood across Seventh Street on the opposite corner overseeing the work. Reverend Lewis explained that the church wants to salvage at least the bottom bluestone part of the structure — the first 8 feet of the building — along with the metal light fixtures that flank the front doors.
The razing of the empty facade should be finished by the spring. Lewis said it’s estimated the construction of the new Center for Spirituality, Justice and the Arts could take from three to five years.
After the fire, Middle Collegiate was asked by its parent organization, Collegiate Church, to explore moving to another Collegiate Church site or buying or leasing another building in the East Village. However, Middle Collegiate did its “due diligence” — which included consulting with the community — and searched for another suitable local site, without success. The congregation decided it would be best to rebuild at the Second Avenue site.
In a move that outraged Village Preservation and others, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, in January, allowed the church to demolish the fire-gutted landmarked facade. This followed a vigorous community debate on the issue.
The church had argued that the facade was too unstable for reuse, making any construction involving it dangerous. But opponents, for their part, cited an engineer’s report saying the facade was solid.