By Carol Yost
The beautiful St. Veronica Church, at 149 Christopher Street, is now a former Catholic church that (it is hoped) can become a permanent concert hall, which would offer free admission to seniors. Its exterior is landmarked but, as explained by Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, its interior can never be landmarked.
It is to be assumed that the Archdiocese needs money for its charitable missions. The church, which is currently being used for free monthly concerts of fine music by some of New York City’s acclaimed musicians, and also as a dance training site by Jorge Navarro of Arts Flamenco, is in a precarious situation. If the Archdiocese decides to sell it to some developer, its interior could be gutted and filled with luxury condos. For a million dollars, or perhaps much more, you could have your own adorable home with stained glass windows in your living room and charming arched entrances with quaint marble columns—the ultimate in chic.
It seems that these days, lots of people are driving up to religious edifices and saying, “This is where I hang out. Cool, huh?” They may never have attended religious services, but developers are converting churches and synagogues with religious fervor. Surf the internet for New York City-area conversions and you will find articles listing many. Outwardly, they look just like religious buildings, but on the inside, people are making their homes there.
We know of four religious edifices in the West Village area that have been converted to other uses. Given the frenzy for building condos, I think that most conversions going forward will involve unaffordable housing, not educational or retail uses.
Surprisingly, the IFC Center (323 6th Avenue, at West 3rd Street), was once a church, built in the early 19th century; look at the roofline and there’s a faint resemblance. It used to be the Waverly Theatre, a familiar part of the Village and mentioned in “Frank Mills,” a song from the musical Hair. It’s still a movie theater that shows many films you can see nowhere else.
Then there’s the Novare, which was once the Washington Square Methodist Church at 134 West 4th Street (near Macdougal Street); it is a Romanesque Revival structure built in the 1860s. Its large penthouse, featured online with impressive photos, was rented for awhile by actor Jude Law while making a film. He got angry at NYU students outside who were ogling him as he exercised on his large balcony and threw fruit at them; that increased the notoriety (and dollar value) of the place. That two-floor penthouse, which has had a sale price in the millions, must be one of the most expensive in the City, even for a condo. But I remember the building as a concert hall for world music while it was still an active church. Arthur Z. Schwartz remembers that it was called the Peace Church in the 1960s and 1970s because it hosted many anti-war groups; the space was available for free to many protest organizations.
The former Village Church and Synagogue, an 1846 Greek Revival building with large Doric columns in front, at 143 West 13th Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues), is now co-ops. I recall the plaque on the front gate, which stated that the building was intended to house a Jewish congregation and a Christian one; they held services at their traditional times. The Greek Revival facade was very carefully and proudly designed as not specific to either religion. I lived just two doors down at the Evangeline Ladies’ Residence Hall and sometimes attended Christian services there; these services sometimes included dance performances and such. It was an admirable effort to show how people of different faiths could get along, and for a while they did. There was a small theater in the basement, which you entered from the side. I saw Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Banzie Is Dead there. Finally, the two groups started having trouble getting along and the interfaith effort was abandoned.
Lastly, there is the former Bethlehem Chapel and Settlement House at 196-198 Bleecker Street (between 6th Avenue and Macdougal Street), built by the First Presbyterian Church in 1918 and designed in an Italian-inspired style because of the many Italian immigrants who lived there. Finally, the progressive educator Elizabeth Irwin, of The Little Red Schoolhouse, rented and later purchased the building in the 1930s; it has been part of that establishment ever since.
Thus, we have residences, a movie house, and a school within former religious buildings. We hope that St. Veronica has the chance to become a permanent concert hall.
The author would like to thank Andrew Berman, the Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, for the useful information he provided for this article.