By Brian J. Pape, AIA
In 1916-1919, five Greek families raised $25,000 to buy a tavern at 155 Cedar Street, a three-story rowhouse built around 1830 as a private residence, and transformed it into a church in the bustling immigrant neighborhood populated by large numbers of Greek, Lebanese and Syrian immigrants. It was destroyed in the September 11th attacks.
For the second time since 2001, the church is in a stalemate. Despite a construction stoppage, the Archdiocese remains committed to rebuilding St. Nicholas at ‘ground zero.’ Governor Cuomo is reaching out to potential backers to make up a $40 million shortfall.
Back in July 2008, capping years of negotiations between the GOA (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America) and the city, the Archdiocese leased the new church site for $1 a year for 198 years. The Port Authority agreed to give St. Nicholas $20 million to build a larger church than the original, and a nondenominational hall for visitors. Since the church would be built in a park over the vehicle screening center, the authority also agreed to pay up to $40 million for a blast-proof platform and foundation (“blast-proof” is an indication of extreme caution).
Then in March 2009, the Port Authority stated that it had stopped talking with the church and had canceled building for St. Nicholas altogether; the Port Authority said that the church was asking for too much.
The Archdiocese, however, said that they just wanted their church back, considering a third of the building would be a memorial for 9/11, a place where people of all faiths could pray and remember those who died in the attacks. Therefore, on February 14, 2011, the GOA filed a $20 million lawsuit against the Port Authority, until October 14, 2011, ten years after the church was destroyed, when an agreement was announced, and ‘ground was broken’. His Eminence, Archbishop Demetrios stated that, “our pledge is to be a witness for all New Yorkers, that freedom of conscience and the fundamental human right of free religious expression will always shine forth in the resurrected St. Nicholas Church.”
The World Trade Center’s new Liberty Park, the one-acre public park featuring 19 planters, a half-dozen species of plants, seating made out of recycled teak, and a 300-foot-long “Living Wall” of greenery along its northern base, was to remain the site of the church.
In response to this challenge, in 2012 architect Santiago Calatrava “set out to provide a building and sequence of spaces that would directly address the traditional Greek liturgy while creating a spatially varied architectural procession.” Calatrava was inspired by the Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Savior in Istanbul, Turkey. The drum-shaped structure is designed with white Pantelic marble, from the same vein in Greece that was quarried to construct the Parthenon in Athens.
Site restrictions included the location, footprint, and volume of the church with no modifications to the space below the church’s 4-foot thick concrete ‘mat’ which the Port Authority provided, and must incorporate utility locations and a vent shaft within the building footprint. Construction on the glowing church design began in 2014, and the structure ‘topped out’ in 2016.
The original fundraising goal was between $40 and $50 million; donations came in from the flock, and from wealthy Greeks, the Greek government and even from other faiths, including the American Jewish Committee and the Catholic Archbishop of Boston.
By December 2017, the GOA had amassed $49 million in pledges, of which $37 million had been collected. Skanska USA, the church’s head construction firm, terminated its contract with the Archdiocese in December 2017 over failure to pay its invoices. The Archdiocese had tapped a restricted pool of construction funds to pay off a mounting deficit, leaving it shorthanded when payments were due.
The church site sits vacant and unfinished; the church is a half-built eyesore. In a 2017 Archdiocese statement, “The Archdiocese is confidently hopeful that construction will recommence in the very near future, and has been assured by Skanska that they are looking forward to the rescinding of this temporary suspension to continue working together in cooperation with the Archdiocese for the completion of the building project.” The cost of the project, once pegged at $30 million, could now exceed $80 million.
On October 16, 2018, the Special Investigative Committee released the investigative report to the Archdiocese, concluding that there was no evidence that St. Nicholas funds were improperly paid to any individuals associated with the Archdiocese, and no evidence that fraud was committed. Rather, the cost overruns appear to have been the result of change orders by Archdiocese decision-makers to address architectural concerns or enhance the design. The Archdiocese installed a new board of trustees to oversee St. Nicholas, and formed the nonprofit Friends of St. Nicholas to fundraise for the church’s completion, following those recommendations.
In November 2018, Port Authority executive director Rick Cotton wrote a letter to the church, including its leaders in Istanbul, Turkey. “If completion is not possible, we would assist in any way possible to find an alternative configuration to complete the project.” By April 2019, Gov. Cuomo was reaching out to donors with deep pockets to join Friends of St. Nicholas and fundraise to finish the church. John Catsimatidis, the owner of the Gristedes Foods supermarket chain, Democratic donor Dennis Mehiel, and Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas, and the Port Authority have all been contacted by Cuomo. “He wants the church finished,” Catsimatidis told the Post, and also said that individuals were willing to donate, but only under new project leadership.
Estimates from New York officials and the Port Authority are that the rebuilt church will be the most visited church in the United States. Millions of people are hoping the church will be completed sooner, rather than later.
Brian J. Pape is a LEED-AP “Green” Architect consulting in private practice, serves on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board, is Co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee.