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Congregation mulls fate of Astoria church

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Faced with a financial crisis, the members of a Presbyterian church in Astoria are grappling with two choices: to save their 82-year-old church from the ravages of time or to keep their congregation alive.

The First Presbyterian Church at 31-40 33rd Ave., a majestic building adorned with Greek columns and stained glass windows, has been a central feature in the Astoria neighborhood for the better part of a century.

But time has left its mark on the church, leaving it in a state of disrepair that the congregation’s minister says would cost more than a million dollars to fix. And it’s money the dwindling congregation doesn’t have.

“The church needs about $1.5 million in repairs,” said Rev. Don Olinger, who has led the First Presbyterian Church of Astoria’s congregation for nine years. “It’s virtually impossible to keep the building warm. The plumbing and heating in the building date back to 1922. It’s not handicapped accessible. Last year we had to spend about $40,000 for emergency repairs. The building is in bad shape.”

The Presbytery of New York, which presides over all Presbyterian churches in the city, asked Olinger to find a solution to the building’s problems.

“The (Presbytery) board has asked me to explore what options are available,” Olinger said. “And I don’t know how we can save this building and at the same time keep our congregation together.”

Olinger said he has explored several options.

One possibility is to have the building designated as a historic site, thus making it eligible for state and federal historic preservation grants.

Another possibility is to work with a developer who would raze the building, then build a new church and a multi-story senior citizen’s home.

Each option carries with it consequences that are weighing heavily on the 80-member congregation as they consider how to proceed.

“There is an emotional attachment to this building,” said Olinger. “Children have been baptized here, there have been funerals, marriages. It’s been a part of people’s lives.”

Some want to save the building, but Olinger said the congregation simply does not have and probably could not raise the money it would take to restore the church.

‘The first choice would be to save the building,” Olinger said. “But the reality of it is: it would be a huge amount of money. If we can’t come up with the money, what happens to the congregation? The congregation could disappear.”

The option of pursuing a historic designation for the church, Olinger said, would only double or triple the total costs of the repairs the church needs.

“There are historic funds available, but many are loans and not as much as people think,” Olinger said. “The problem with it is that all repairs would have to be approved by a board. The repairs must be done according to historic guidelines, and it makes the costs double or triple.”

Olinger said a contractor estimated the cost of replacing the church’s windows at about $100,000. But when the estimate included the special glass and historic 1920s vintage frames that would be required by a historic preservation board, the cost went up to about $300,000, Olinger said.

When Olinger suggested that the congregation consider working with a developer, demolishing the church and rebuilding a new one, it rang the alarms of some historic preservation activists in the city.

Among them is Bob Singleton of the Greater Astoria Historical Society, who publicized the plight of the church by alerting preservationists throughout the city and contacting the press.

“Mr. Singleton is concerned about saving the building, but I’m concerned about saving the congregation,” Olinger said.

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, said the potential demolition of the church is symptomatic of a trend in the city in which historic churches are falling one-by-one to developers’ wrecking balls.

“It’s happening all over New York City,” Bankoff said. “It’s upsetting to all of us here at HDC because these churches are a very important part of communities. With this particular church, you have to look at what it means to the community.”

But while Olinger said he is fully aware of the church’s meaning for and role in the community, this does little to solve the crushing financial needs that are threatening it.

“Everyone is so concerned about the building, but they don’t do much to support it,” Olinger said. “If someone gave us a million dollars to repair it and another $30,000 to $40,000 per year to maintain it --- we’d be willing to do that.”

On Sunday, Olinger asked the members of the congregation to vote on how to proceed on the fate of their church.

“They’ve decided we need more time to decide,” Olinger said Monday.

Reach Reporter Tom Nicholson by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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