The South Bushwick Reformed Church, a vestige of its neighborhood’s Dutch roots according to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, has not changed much in appearance over its 168-year lifespan: it is white, it is clapboard-sided and above its Greek Revival portico, a towering spire looks out over the community.
Lately, though, that signature spire is more crooked than towering.
“I pass the church two or three times a day, and it’s in really bad shape. The roof is sagging, the steeple, there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s tilted by a lot,” said Salvatore Polizzi, a community member and owner of Tony’s Pizzeria.
An inspection by engineers with the New York City Department of Buildings found that it is not in imminent danger of collapse, but the landmark structure’s state of disrepair is a pressing restoration project with a $7.5 million price tag, according to Andrew Rudansky, press secretary for the department.
Pastor James Steward, who has served the small parish for the past several years, said the Reformed Church’s crumbling infrastructure is nothing new. As of July 29, Steward said the church received approvals to move forward with phase one of the restoration, which will straighten and secure the spire.
The entire project, however, is a massive undertaking that has been delayed due to a series of complications.
Among those complications are more than 30 anonymous complaints about the church’s deteriorating exterior. The city Department of Buildings told Bushwick Daily that an ensuing inspection found missing gutters, missing roof shingles and damaged soffits in addition to the leaning spire, for which Steward was cited for multiple violations.
“The city has deemed that there is no imminent danger, although people continue to file complaints, which does not help the church in trying to get it fixed,” Steward said.
Due to the complaints, Steward and inspecting engineers have had to prove repeatedly in court that the steeple is not at risk of falling and hurting people below. The leaning spire was designed to sway in the wind when it was built in 1853, and so its tilt today is mostly due to an architectural issue, not deterioration.
The complaints and subsequent court appointments have also pushed back timelines for phase one. Construction was set to begin the last week of July but was rescheduled due to a positive COVID-19 diagnosis from one of the crew members.
“We have been, throughout this time, trying to get approvals, but of course it’s funding. It would be great if we could get a multi-million-dollar donation from somebody,” Steward said.
A $30,000 grant from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and two $25,000 grants from the New York Landmarks Conservancy and its statewide program, Sacred Sites, will cover the rectification of the spire. The church has previously tried to remove it altogether to avoid alarm from the public, but the building’s place on the National Register of Historic Places puts limitations, and dollar signs, on how Steward can address the decaying house of worship.
“We don’t have $7.5 million. No one in the community has given it to us, so we have to do this in phases,” he said.
In phase two, which still lacks a funding source, the contractors at Milan Restoration Inc. will address water penetration and roof issues. Both the city and Steward said that although the Reformed Church is in desperate need of some TLC, the public should not be concerned about safety based on recent inspections.
“DOB engineers will be routed to the scene to check in on the progress of these repairs, and we will continue to monitor the site to ensure the work is performed and the building is properly restored to a safe condition,” Rudansky said in an email.
Steward asked that members of the public refrain from filing complaints about the church’s appearance with the city and instead ask how they can help raise money to make the project possible.
“We would like to continue doing the work and mission of the church, but so much of our energy and time has been spent fighting complaints we get,” he said. “Funding is the issue. We are looking at it, and if anyone in the community has funds that would be helpful.”
Top image courtesy of James Steward.
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