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Church going brick by brick

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Up in the clock tower of the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church, workers could be seen, in silhouette through a gauze of netting, removing bricks.

As they dismantled the beloved 109-year-ld sanctuary – known to Ridgites as the Green Church – light streamed through from the sky behind, illuminating the already skeletal structure whose bedraggled aspect stood in sharp contrast to the gracious architecture beloved by generations of area residents.

It was D-Day for the church, which, after years of community struggle, was succumbing to the race for development that slowed down too late to save it.

Other endangered churches around the city have had happier endings in recent months. St Brigid’s on Manhattan’s Lower East Side had been preserved at the 11th hour thanks to an anonymous angel who donated $10 million; Queens’ St. Saviour’s Church been also saved from the wrecking ball when preservationists were told they could dismantle the structure and move it from the development site to a nearby cemetery.

But, the Bay Ridge landmark was not so lucky.

Developer Abe Betesh of Abeco Realty contracted last year with the church’s congregation to buy the property on which the church, the Sunday school building and the parsonage are situated, at the corner of Fourth and Ovington Avenues, for $9.75 million. The sale has not yet been finalized; the contract requires the congregation to demolish the church before the transfer of the property can be completed.

“It’s very sad, extremely unfortunate,” said Kathy Walker, co-chairperson of the Committee to Save the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church, which has battled over the last year and a half to save the structure. “I hope the congregation and the pastor can live with themselves.

“It wasn’t necessary,” Walker contended of the demolition, in reference to the varied plans to preserve the sanctuary that had been brokered by City Councilmember Vincent Gentile, who had worked for the past three years to come up with a deal that would be a win for the congregation and the community.

However, the plans were seen in a far rosier light by residents than by the congregation, which rejected all of the proposals Gentile brought forward.

These included a plan that would have turned the sanctuary into an arts center, while building housing, a new church and a medical center on the church parking lot, as well as a Con Edison Renaissance Project proposal to build affordable senior housing on the parking lot, then turn the housing over to the congregation, which would have been able to realize an annual income of approximately $300,000 from the housing, while keeping the sanctuary intact.

That, from the congregation’s perspective, was the rub. The congregation has consistently contended that the sanctuary was in bad shape, that its condition was deteriorating, and that they could not afford the upkeep required by the structure, which is faced in fragile serpentine stone that is simultaneously its distinguishing factor and its weakness.

“It’s very dishearten­ing,” remarked Victoria Hofmo, the founder of the Bay Ridge Conservancy. Among her concerns, said Hofmo, was what kind of impact the anticipated demolition of the parsonage – the end building in a row of attached homes – would have on the people living next door.

Hofmo – who had warned months ago about the possibility that the church could be replaced by “a hole in the ground” — also said she was concerned about the future of the lot. Early on, she recalled, “The developer wanted to flip it.” He had, in fact, listed the property with a realtor as long ago as September, 2007, for $11.5 million. “I worry, with the problems we’re having now with the economy, what’s going to be at that corner,” Hofmo stressed.

The entire situation has saddened her, Hofmo added. A few months ago, the day that the remains of about 200 church members were disinterred from a crypt on the grounds of the church, was “one of the worst days in my life,” she told this paper.

“It’s really sad that it’s come to this,” Hofmo reiterated. “There were so many possibilities to find a solution that could have provided them with the money they needed, without taking down the church.”

While residents who loved the structure are now saying their final farewells as the sanctuary comes down slowly — “tenderly,” as Hofmo put it — the congregation has already said goodbyes to the sanctuary, remarked the Reverend Robert Emerick, the church’s pastor. “We’re already focused on the future,” Emerick told this paper. “We said goodbye to the building back in April.”

As to why the building was being dismantled so carefully, Emerick said he didn’t know. “That’s a decision made by the demolition company,” he noted. “They know what they are doing.”

As it is, the community will be left with memories of the sanctuary, photos, and a street sign. The intersection was named Bay Ridge United Methodist Church Corner a few years back, at the congregation’s request.

The sanctuary was placed on the State and national Registers of Historic Places in 1999, also at the request of the congregation, which earlier had turned to the community to help raise money to restore the clock tower that is now being disassembled.

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