Scaffolding has gone up in front of Mary Help of Christians Church and demolition work has commenced at the rectory next door, but hey… at least the contractor’s logo is in keeping with the spirit of the place?
The small group of ex-parishioners who still pray the rosary in front of the 96-year-old church on East 12th Street are really going to have to hope for a miracle now: Bedford + Bowery has discovered that a few days ago, the Landmarks Preservation Commission rejected calls for an archaeological study to be conducted, making it all the more likely that Doug Steiner, who bought the property for $41 million back in November, will demolish it and replace it with an 80/20 mix of market-rate and affordable housing.
Last month, several preservation groups held a rally on the church’s steps to announce that there might be human remains buried beneath it. They offered evidence that, from 1833 to 1907, the third oldest Catholic cemetery in New York was located on much of the block, beneath where the church and its school now stand.
In the first decade of the 20th century, bodies from the cemetery were exhumed and moved to Calvary Cemetery, in Queens, but the newspaper reports from that time refer to only 3,000 to 5,000 out of a possible total of 41,000 bodies being moved.
But the LPC now says it can’t require an archeological survey, since it has no jurisdiction over the site. In February, “LPC’s staff found Mary Help of Christians lacked architectural distinction, and appeared to be a copy of other churches like it rather than a unique standalone work,” Elisabeth de Bourbon, the Director of Communications for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, explained. “Moreover, the building’s three main elements fail to relate to one another, making the building seem more like a sum of its parts than a whole.”
Meanwhile, none of the four community groups trying to save the church have been successful in contacting Steiner, despite repeated attempts. “You would think he would try to reach out to the community and be respectful of the history of the site,” said Richard Moses, president of the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative.
“It could be a win-win [for the developer and community],” adds Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “The cemetery did not extend to the very large open yard on the eastern half of this property. There would be no objections to his building there.”
Berman is hoping for a compromise, in which Steiner develops the open yard and re-uses the historic buildings on the site, which could be done, he says, in a “unique and profitable way.” And if not a compromise? “At this point,” he admits, “we are hoping for a miracle.”