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East Village’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral’s Road to Landmark Designation

For those who don’t know it, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection at 59 East 2nd Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues, is one of the most striking and impressive ecclesiastical structures, not only the East Village, but all of New York (their website is here).

The Russian Orthodox Cathedral, 59 East 2nd Street. Image c/o Barry Munger.
The Russian Orthodox Cathedral, 59 East 2nd Street. Image c/o Barry Munger.

While it has served as the home of a Russian Orthodox congregation for seventy years, the building’s history is immensely more twisting and complicated, as was the road to ensuring this landmark’s permanent preservation.
The stately cathedral, which stands the width of 3 city lots, is one of only three Russian Orthodox Cathedrals in Manhattan. The different phases in the building’s history speak to both the greater immigrant experience in New York, and more specifically to the experience of the Russian Orthodoxy in the first half of the 20th Century. The cathedral, made of rock-cut Kentucky limestone, was designed in the Gothic style by the renowned architect Josiah Cleveland Cady, who would later build such iconic New York City landmarks as the original Metropolitan Opera House, and the West 77th Street frontage and auditorium of the American Museum of Natural History, among others.

The Cathedral in 1934, and the New York Times’ account of its sale to a Russian Orthodox congregation.  C/o NYPL Digital Archives.

The history of the cathedral dates back to 1867, when houses stood in its place. That year, the New York City Mission Society converted the house on the easternmost lot into the Olivet Chapel. The church catered to the local immigrant population, offering services in German, Hungarian, Italian, and Russian. In 1891, Cady laid the cornerstone for the current cathedral, which was originally named the Olivet Memorial Church.  At this time, the Mission Society was focusing on a new institutional approach, consolidating its programming into churches which provided ample space and resources to serve needy communities. The Lower East Side was particularly in need of such facilities. The new church was large enough to offer classes, a library, baths, and other social gathering spaces.

The interior of the Cathedral boasts incredible carved wood — photo c/o Forgotten NY http://forgotten-ny.com/2006/10/open-house-new-york-2006/

In 1943, the Olivet Memorial Church was purchased by the Orthodox Church of America, which was established in 1870 as the Russo-Greek Chapel of Holy Trinity to serve the needs of Russian and Greek Embassies. With this transaction, the Cathedral inherited a complex and interesting history of turmoil within the Russian State. In 1917, when the Communist revolution erupted in Russia, the Soviet government sued for ownership of all properties built abroad with Tsarist funds, including the Church of St. Nicholas on 97th Street, which had thus far been home to the parish. Twenty-six years later, the parish was able to purchase the Olivet Memorial Church, and renamed it the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection. As a symbol of the Orthodoxy, icons are painted all throughout the interior, which are mainly in the traditional Byzantine style.

In 2008, the Cathedral considered a plan to build an 8-story condominium tower atop the building.  GVSHP was alerted to this by members of the congregation who disagreed with the plan (note: some of the Cathedral’s keadership claim they were never seriously considering such a plan, though they did go so far as to file for permits with the Department of Building to construct the tower).  Upon learning this, on October 10, 2008 GVSHP and the East Village Community Coalition (EVCC) submitted a request to the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) that they consider the building for landmark designation.  Soon thereafter the East Village Rezoning, which GVSHP, EVCC, Community Board #3, Councilmember Rosie Mendez, and other community groups and elected officials pushed for, was passed, making the construction of an 8-story tower atop the church impossible.  The LPC entered into a “standstill agreement” with the church whereby the church would not proceed with any plans to change the exterior of the building while the LPC considered the possibility of proposing the building for landmark designation.  In October of 2009 the LPC voted to “calendar” the building, meaning formal consideration of landmark designation had begun, and in early 2010 they held a hearing on individual landmark designation for the church.  Later that year, on July 15, 2010, Community Board #3 held its own public hearing on the proposed landmark designation of the Cathedral.

More details of the incredible interior of the Cathedral, c/o Forgotten NY http://forgotten-ny.com/2006/10/open-house-new-york-2006/

As is often the case, the LPC did not move right away to landmark the cathedral after holding its public hearing.  In early 2011, the LPC released a draft map of a proposed East Village Historic District which excluded the entire block of East 2nd Street, including the Cathedral.  GVSHP, along with EVCC, the Historic Districts Council, and the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative urged the LPC to expand the boundaries of the proposed district to include that block of East 2nd Street including the Cathedral, and they did.  The district was designated on October 9, 2012, including the Cathedral, which now enjoys landmark protections (read more HERE).

Map showing the extensions to the proposed East Village Historic District GVSHP helped secure, including the Cathedral.

The leadership of the Cathedral and many in the congregation strongly opposed designation.  They expressed concerns about the increased expense landmark designation might bring, and the restrictions it might place on what they could do with their place of worship.  These are understandable concerns, but we also let them know that landmark designation would not impact the interior of the Cathedral in any way, and that many other religious institutions have found that landmark designation does not increase their expenses at all, and have thrived under designation.  We offered to put them in touch with these other institutions, as well as to help them pursue funding that could be available for religious institutions which are landmarked.  We also let them know that landmark designation has a “hardship clause,” which means that by law, if they can show that landmark designation is preventing them from fulfilling their mission or creating an expense which they cannot afford, they can be relieved of the requirements of landmark designation.

Though the leadership and many members of the Cathedral remained strongly opposed to landmarking right up until the designation vote (and may well still oppose it to this day, as is their right), and we disagreed about the impact designation would have upon the congregation, one thing we all agreed upon was that the Cathedral was a stunningly beautiful space, which the current congregation has done an incredible job of caring for and adorning and embellishing on the interior.  In my interactions with the Cathedral I met many people who were passionately dedicated to their congregation and their home.  Our offer to assist them in any way we can remains.

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