Donate to RNS

N.Y. Church Holds Cautionary Tale for Churches Considering Development

c. 2006 Religion News Service NEW YORK _ St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal on tony Park Avenue is one of those churches that can prompt a case of professional envy for some pastors. Big building. Big congregation. Big money. Big ideas. But 25 years ago, mired in a divisive real estate battle that split the church and […]

c. 2006 Religion News Service

NEW YORK _ St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal on tony Park Avenue is one of those churches that can prompt a case of professional envy for some pastors. Big building. Big congregation. Big money. Big ideas.

But 25 years ago, mired in a divisive real estate battle that split the church and nearly turned St. Bart’s into a museum, it would have been hard to imagine.

It’s a cautionary tale of what can happen when a church seeks to capitalize on its gold-mine real estate value _ and loses, forcing another strategy for survival.

In 1980, the cash-strapped St. Bart’s unveiled plans to demolish its low-rise parish house and hire a developer to erect a 47-story glass office tower above the iconic Byzantine-style church.

Former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and philanthropist Brooke Astor, citing a 1967 landmark designation that prevented changes to the church’s exterior, mounted a campaign to stop the tower. But the church said it desperately needed the $10 million annual payout from the deal, and went to court to fight the landmark designation.

Down and dirty politics overtook the church as parishioners and the pastor filed suits and countersuits. Between 1982 and 1985, half of the church’s membership walked out the door, weary from the fight.

In 1991, the suit reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ended the battle by refusing to hear the church’s challenge to the landmarks law. Without income from the office tower, big-ticket renovations at the church would have to wait.

In 1994, a new pastor, Bill Tully, was called up from Washington to remake the church. “We’ve worked 10 years flat-out to get this far,” he said. “If we couldn’t build up a community, we couldn’t build up a building.”

The church decided to “bet the farm” to turn things around. Staff members were hired and programs were added. Music became a priority, and free parking was offered to visitors. The buzz about St. Bart’s started to spread.

Attendance has since grown from 125 to 1,200 at five Sunday services. An endowment that had withered from $20 million to $7 million was slowly rebuilt. St. Bart’s soon emerged as a think tank for church growth ideas, and sponsors “reinventing church” conferences.

One problem remains, however. The repair bill on the 1918 structure has now reached $100 million, Tully said. The church can’t sell its air rights to a neighbor because the area has been completely built out, so the church has embarked on a $30 million capital campaign.

Tully said the key to the turnaround was seeing the building _ the cause of so much pain and strife _ as an opportunity, not an albatross, and seeing St. Bart’s as a congregation, not bricks and mortar.

“The building is not our problem, the building is our solution,” Tully said, noting its location in the heart of midtown Manhattan. “If you want to speak to the world, you want to be here.”

MO/PH END ECKSTROM

Editors: To obtain a photo of St. Bartholomew’s Church, go to the RNS Web site at https://religionnews.com. On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.

SPECIAL REPORT: CHURCHES AND REAL ESTATE

SIDEBAR WITH `SKY-LIMIT’