On East 12th Street between 3rd and 4th Avenues, the entrance to a 26-story dorm, designed to house 700 NYU students, sits “discreetly” behind a disembodied 1847 church tower. Neither historic preservation nor adaptive reuse, the AIA Guide to New York City refers to it as a “folly behind which lurks yet another dorm for NYU…the effect is of a majestic elk, shot and stuffed.”
First constructed in 1847 as the 12th Street Baptist Church, the church was rebuilt under the design of noted architect Napoleon LeBrun in 1870. It was one of the only structures in all of New York City to have served what had been the city’s three main religions – it was originally a Protestant Church, later became the home of Temple Emanu-El synagogue, and later served as a Roman Catholic Church, including as an Armenian National Shrine.
In 2005, plans were announced to demolish the church, which Village Preservation (known at the time as GVSHP) opposed. The church was of obvious and great historic and architectural significance, and the proposed tower was extremely out of scale for the mid-block, side street location. Additionally, there was a rather unusual use of development (air) rights from the neighboring Post Office which skirted the appropriate review, allowing the dorm to exceed zoning allowances by 55%.
On August 2nd, 2006, Village Preservation held a rally to protest the plans for the new dorm (which Village Preservation only discovered from a filing with the Department of Buildings, when NYU claimed they had not finalized their plans and were still in talks with the organization and neighbors about what their project might look like) and sent this letter to NYU President John Sexton, regarding the “outrageous breach of good faith” and “new low, even for NYU” towards community engagement.
Village Preservation also opposed this development because it was able to expand its size in a very questionable manner. The development rights were sold by the USPS, a federal agency, to the developer. While NYC regulates land use, the federal government supersedes these local rights, and can not be limited by NYC zoning regulations. Thus the entire premise of the sale was that air rights from the Post Office were being moved to the dorm site to be used there, and thus were extinguished from the Post Office site by the transaction. But Village Preservation argued that since the city can’t regulate the development rights of the Post Office, the premise was false and it could not authorize the use of the post office’s air rights on the dorm site. Mayor Bloomberg went to court using taxpayer dollars to successfully defend the air rights transfer from the challenge.
Village Preservation and local photographer Theodore Grunewald documented the interior of the church and its demolition. See all the images here on our historic image archive.
In response to this questionable zoning maneuver and the proliferation of NYU and other forms in the area, in 2010, Village Preservation working closely with then-Councilmember Rosie Mendez got the zoning for the area changed to put height limits in place for new developments and to limit the proliferation of dorms here. No more such towers or dorms have been built in the area since.
Click here to read more about the Church’s history and here to see more historic images from our archive.