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From hymnals to hit parade - Advocates push to transform ‘Green Church’ into arts center

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The Green Church may be, to all intents and purposes, on borrowed time, but the structure’s likely imminent demolition hasn’t stopped local activists from making another effort to save it. Recently, a plan surfaced to turn the historic sanctuary, at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and Ovington Avenue, into an arts center for the community. With seating for 600, and excellent acoustics, the building that houses the Bay Ridge United Methodist would be an ideal performance space for such groups as the Ridge Chorale and the Narrows Community Theater, says Karen Tadross, the producer of the former group. Tadross broached the idea to members of the Bay Ridge Community Council (BRCC) just days before the Committee to Save the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church held its fourth protest rally outside the sanctuary. The group carried signs expressing opposition to the loss of a local landmark, as well as to the over-development that the church’s demolition would bring to that corner where the sanctuary has stood for 108 years. “What Would Jesus Do?” demanded one sign, that provided its own answer – “Jesus Wouldn’t Demolish a Church.” Another sign invited passing cars to honk, to indicate support for saving the beloved structure, which is due to come down – possibly as soon as next month, as part of a deal with a Brooklyn developer, Abeco Management, which is in contract with the congregation to purchase the property for $9.75 million, after the demolition has occurred. Abeco would likely build a multi-story condominium development on the site. Tadross, when she spoke at BRCC’s meeting, got a combination of cheers and jeers from the crowd gathered at St. Ephrem’s auditorium, 74th Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway. Her premise is simple. With so many arts groups being closed out of performance and rehearsal spaces, it would be logical to make use of an existing space that could accommodate them. “The Ridge Chorale, along with Narrows Community Theater and countless dance schools, choruses and orchestras that call Bay Ridge our home have, are or will face the same problem – no place to perform,” Tadross told the group. “Most of us are essentially homeless.” The Ridge Chorale, she noted, pays $10,000 to rent the performance space at Poly Prep. That cost is likely to increase after the space is renovated, meaning, said Tadross, that the cost of tickets will go up as well. Having a local performing arts center, therefore, would benefit not just the performance groups but also local residents. “With Broadway tickets now out of reach for most people, community theater brings an opportunity to expose children to theater at an early age at a reasonable price,” Tadross pointed out. “It provides local entertainment for our seniors who are on a fixed budget and can no longer travel into Manhattan to see shows. We provide an opportunity for our local citizens to utilize their talents and entertain their neighbors.” Turning the church into an arts center would also provide economic benefits to the surrounding community, contended Tadross. “Restaurants, bars, diners and other local businesses would see an increase in revenue, much like the business surrounding NJPAC (New Jersey Performing Arts Center) when it was built.,” she told the group. “Their revenues increased 12.3 million in the first year alone.” Of course, one major stumbling block is that there’s no funding available at present to make Tadross’s vision a reality, something she acknowledged when she spoke before BRCC. “A combination of public and private funding would have to be secured to build it, but with enough creative thinking, I believe this would be the least of the problems,” she told her listeners. Members of the Committee to Save the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church expressed support for the concept of turning the church into a performing arts center. “Let the community use it, let the organizations use it, and let it be as a beautiful space,” urged Kathy Walker, the committee’s co-chairperson. “It’s a gorgeous corner, a gorgeous space. And, it would be so much more user-friendly. There are grants around for performing arts. With everything that’s happening in downtown Brooklyn, there’s no reason why those things can’t drift toward Bay Ridge.” Preservationist Victoria Hofmo agreed. Hofmo, the founder of the Bay Ridge Conservancy and a member of the Committee to Save the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church, said that, “It really is to the church’s advantage to have someone else buy it who doesn’t want it demolished, because they would have more profit.” A performing arts center is a natural fit, she added, pointing out that, because the church was designed “auditorium style” by architect George W. Kramer, it has “great sight lines and acoustics.” Hofmo also said that, with the passing of time, there are fewer and fewer venues available to local performing arts groups. Some spaces have become too expensive, she noted, while others, such as Fort Hamilton, are basically off-limits because of security issues. “We have been trying to give people ideas about how to partner up,” Hofmo noted, pointing out that the idea of turning the Green Church into a performing arts center has been around for a while, as has a general idea of trying to match such spaces to groups that could use them. “We had tried to put together a coalition of people,” she recalled, “and match up groups that were looking for space. There are churches that have under-utilized space and there are people who need space, so why not try to make partnerships? “Hopefully,” Hofmo went on, “other churches will see the potential here and, instead of looking at their situation and saying, the congregation is dwindling, say, look at the opportunities here.” The congregation of the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church was given the go-ahead to sell by state Supreme Court Justice Larry Martin in January and the Reverend Robert Emerick, the church’s pastor, has predicted that demolition would take place by May. The church had been on the market since 2005. The congregation decided to sell the church, in the first place, because of concern over its dilapidated condition. While the green serpentine stone that faces it has been crumbling, leading the congregation to believe that the church is structurally unsound and would cost millions to refurbish, activists say that a sound structure underlies the façade, and that the façade could be restored for far less money. Besides the sanctuary, two other structures on the site are supposed to be razed. These are the Sunday school building and the parsonage. The latter is an attached limestone rowhouse, and one of the concerns is that the demolition of that building will undermine the stability of the adjacent building in the row. The congregation is planning to build a small, new sanctuary on a corner of the site. Besides demolishing the sanctuary, and the other two structures on the site, they need to disinter the remains of over 200 people buried in a crypt on the site, who would be reburied elsewhere in a Methodist cemetery. By press time, Emerick had not returned a call requesting comment.

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