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A BRITISHER’S VIEW - There’s still time to save the ‘Green Church’

Any borough that would rid itself of a beautiful, 108-year-old church, on the premise that it is somehow beyond repair, is a short-sighted one, unmindful of its historical importance and deserves to OD on over-development for gluttony’s sake – plus be renamed ‘Dorian Gray.’ The battle is not an uphill one, but a lost one, if Brooklyn, the second most densely-populated county in the world’s most prosperous country, continues to surrender its architectural crown – without much concern and jewel by jewel – thanks to an insatiable appetite for replacing history with a trot to the piggy bank. The latest casualties to have a date with the demolition ball, possibly as early as next month, are the charming Bay Ridge United Methodist Church at 4th and Ovington avenues, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1999 [see inset], and the limestone row house on its property, where three generations of family have happily lived until now. The case of the olive-colored ‘Green Church’ – a Bay Ridge stalwart since 1899 and designed by eminent 19th century American architect George W. Kramer in a transitional late Victorian/Romanesque Revival style – is particularly sorrowful. Not because another venerable institution has been bought by an alleged slum lord for just under $10 million but because its own pastor and much of its congregation appear to be the ones hell bent on robbing the ‘Borough of Churches’ of its rightful place in local heart and history. They should not have rebuffed the generous, revenue-generating and good-faith deal of Councilman Vincent Gentile and energy giant Consolidated Edison to restore the church and its two-lot property of 88,237 square feet, and build housing for seniors upon it. Naturally, time has crumbled some of the green serpentine stonework on the eye-pleasing house of worship, sweetly snuggled between lush hedgerows and a place of calm for multiple generations of admirers. That is the fate of every old structure across the world, until its visionaries see the light. One cannot traverse a mile in the United Kingdom without happening upon a centuries-old structure of, among others, Saxon, Norman, Early English, Neo-Classical, Rococo, Gothic and even pre-historic origins that has been lovingly revived, or left alone. For the congregation of United Methodist to prematurely doom its church to the dogs is a bunch of codswallop. There is something to be said for being in a place where life has continued for hundreds, thousands and, in some cases, millions of years, practically untouched. Did United Methodist think of contacting the Preservation League of New York State? The one “dedicated to the protection of New York’s diverse and rich heritage of historic buildings, districts and landscapes?” The one that honors “projects, organizations, individuals and publications that exemplify excellence in historic preservation?” The one that views such renewal “as an economic development tool that generates more jobs, tourism, affordable housing, and downtown investment than new construction?” Nope, said church minister Pastor Robert Emerick, who told this column that there had been “no talk” of conservation because of one architect’s assessment in 1998 that the grand house of prayer was a hopeless case. Blimey, he can’t wait to get rid of it. It behooves Brooklyn to salvage its old church and other choice miscellanea, such as the Coney Island Boardwalk. Apparently, it is a sentiment echoed by the newly-formed Committee to Save the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church, whose foresighted members know the importance of rescuing a relic for future generations to enjoy and be inspired by. Unlike holy-rollers at the church, who the Committee says cannot wait for its D-Day, nor its farewell party, where pieces of the green-stoned exterior will be given away as souvenirs. So goggle-eyed with greed is some of the congregation that it is rumored to have already spent a $500,000 down-payment from the sale of the church property to Abeco Management Corporation “to buy a house for Pastor Emerick elsewhere in Bay Ridge,” contends the Committee on the Web for all to know. The church sale, in itself, is a cloak and dagger affair. It took a court order from the Kings County Supreme Court to sell it. Then, because United Methodist is among a coffee klatch of denominations exempt from having to publicize its property sales, the hearing was conducted ex parte – that’s legal jabberwocky for a trial-of-sorts to which the opposition is not invited. It is a discredit to the cloth and community that Mr. Emerick and his cohorts do not have the best interests of their church at heart, nor the prudence of such clergymen as Thomas Hodson. The vicar of St. Nicholas Church, located in the village of Oddington, Gloucestershire, gently restored the 11th century British gem, known for its medieval paintings, and brought it back into use in 1912 for new generations to love. Of course, United Methodist’s purported new owner, Mr. Abe Betesh, could always return the church to its former glory instead of blighting its blessed grounds with horrible high-rises for a quick, nonsensical buck. Just imagine the high esteem that could befall him. Statues could be erected in his memory, history books could hail him a hero and Brooklynites could revere him for eternity. Mr. Betesh could be Brooklyn’s own Ivor Bulmer-Thomas, a proud Welshman, who formed the Friends of Friendless Churches in 1957 and helped save 38 churches from an untimely death. For his good works, Ivor is remembered to this day. Where there is will, there is always a way. Scotland’s historic East Church, in the coastal town of Cromarty, is among 21 buildings across the United Kingdom that will take part in BBC2’s new television series, “Restoration Village,” which airs in July and focuses upon buildings that matter to rural communities, with the public deciding which contestant deserves the grand prize: money for a makeover. Consider it an American Idol-of-sorts for antiquated places. Brooklyn should, and can, safeguard its proud heritage of handsome structures and landscapes, through a committed partnership between the private and public sectors. It just takes some prescience. Stonehenge was only a grouping of crooked, rotting earthenworks, and the City of Bath just a place where the Romans took a dunk and a dump, before some sage decided to preserve them for posterity and make them a part of our social DNA. E-mail“A Britisher’s View” at BritView@courierlife.net. All letters become the property of Courier-Life Publications and are subject to publication unless otherwise specified; please include your name, address and daytime telephone number for verification.

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