“For Churches, a Temptation to Sell” by C. J. Hughes is a good overview of the issues involved with old religious buildings and preservation. The specifics in the article are related to the real estate pressures in New York, but the general themes are applicable far more broadly.
In short, there are a group of interconnected problems for religious buildings other than the most famous and those owned by the wealthiest congregations. In no particular order:
- The architectural styles historically used for churches, synagogues, and other religious buildings are highly ornamented and thus require more maintenance than plainer buildings.
- Religious buildings, for various reasons (turnover on the volunteer committees that often are responsible for the work, low budgets, a relative lack of statutory investigation requirements similar to the facade inspections required for taller buildings) often receive inadequate maintenance.
- Maintenance of the elaborate buildings is not directly part of the mission of the buildings’ owners the way it may be for an apartment house, corporate headquarters, or a rental office building. Spending money on the building takes it away from the mission rather than adds to it.
- Because these are structurally and architecturally complex buildings relative to their size, diagnosis and repair are difficult once deferred maintenance takes its toll.
- Because these are usually one- and two-story buildings (sometimes with very tall unoccupied towers), they are under-built for their lots relative to what could be in their place.
- If they are preserved through landmarking, they have limited uses if the congregation leaves. They are best suited to be assembly halls or theaters, but there is a limited number of such buildings needed in a given area.
- If the buildings are no longer used for religious purposes, they lose their tax exemption, which exacerbates the cost of their upkeep relative to their usable space.
The end result, which is no one’s fault, is that under-used religious buildings are typically demolished, as described in the article.
The image above is the first Madison Square Presbyterian Church, which was built in 1854 and demolished in 1909. The congregation moved about 50 feet north, to the opposite corner of 24th Street and Madison Avenue, and the second Madison Square Presbyterian Church was built in 1906 and demolished in 1919. The first church was replaced by the Met Life Tower; the second at first by a generic office building for Met Life and then, eventually, by the North Building of Met Life. In other words, the beautiful church buildings were replaced by iconic skyscrapers. This pattern – old buildings that are of architectural and historic interest being replaced by new buildings that are of similar interest – has been common in Manhattan. The most famous example is the old Waldorf-Astoria hotel, which by 1929 was functionally obsolete, being replaced by the Empire State Building. It’s possible to both miss the buildings that have been demolished while appreciating what replaced them.