By Brian J. Pape, AIA

Pastor Mark Erson, of St. John’s Lutheran Church at 81 Christopher Street, wrote to let us know that “after 21 years of being behind an 8-foot fence, we have restored a good portion of the [church’s] original fence” in front of the main church entry.

It seems that 21 years ago, the folks at the church decided they needed more protection from street rowdies who dominated New York City during its nittier-grittier days; they took down the old shorter iron fence and replaced it with an eight-foot-tall spiked iron fence, without city Landmarks Preservation Commission’s (LPC) permission.

As an example of how LPC works in a Historic District, if you put up a big fence without permission or permits, it’s considered illegal. Even if it was something that might’ve been approved but you didn’t get the prior approval, it’s considered illegal and the commission will look for owners, like the church, to legalize the work by submitting for approval.
“Now 21 years later, the church has gotten the LPC approvals, not just to legalize the previous fence, but also to move forward on replacing it with the antique fence and for the rest of the fence to match eventually,” Pastor Erson proudly proclaimed. The church will need to raise money in order to get the rest of the fence replicated and installed. The Architectural Iron Company of Milford, Pennsylvania, which specializes in fine metalwork and matching wrought iron and other metal pieces, and has many examples of their work throughout NYC, will be responsible for the new matching fencework.

ST. JOHN’S LUTHERAN CHURCH, 81 CHRISTOPHER STREET, recently resurrected its antique four-foot-high fence at the front doors; some of the eight-foot-tall barrier remains until
funds can be raised for fencing to match the old four-foot remnant. Photo: B. Pape.

For Pastor Mark, as he signs his messages on their website,, this action is more than just restoring an artifact from the church’s history. Pastor Erson added, “The church’s leadership has strived to be a more open community center for many residents, whether the diverse community of faith, or community neighbors.” Just as NYC has changed from an atmosphere pervaded with fear of robbery, vandalism and injury to one of a more welcoming and safe environment, now the church wants to express its inclusive activities by restoring a friendlier, less-fortress-like face to the street.

Villagers may already know of past years of concerts and art performances sponsored by the church and open to the public, or the community meeting space offered to non-profit groups. I remember a wonderful night there when Pete Seeger and Theodore Bikel gave an intimate concert.

A series of performances will continue Oct. 3–19, when the Theater at St. John’s will present the Carlo Annoni-award-winning play, Marc in Venice, written and directed by Mark Erson, the pastor of the church.

Brian J. Pape is a LEED-AP “Green” Architect consulting in private practice, serves on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board, and is Co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee.

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