St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery has been a haven for social justice and the arts for decades. Congregants held demonstrations during the Civil Rights Movement, apartheid, and the Black Lives Matter protest last year. The Episcopal church also houses and collaborates with three separate arts partners (Danspace, The Poetry Project, and The New York Theatre Ballet) to help promote creativity within the community.
St. Mark’s recently received at $35,000 donation from the New York Landmarks Conservancy to help with restoration efforts of the centuries-old building. The New York Landmarks Conservancy aims to maintain beautiful buildings that serve the New York community. The Conservancy is privately funded, and this particular grant was underwritten by the Estate of Robert W. Wilson, a devoted patron of the Conservancy’s Sacred Sites program. During his lifetime, Mr. Wilson contributed $3.5 million to the restoration of more than 100 Catholic and Protestant churches, mobilizing more than $250 million in renovation projects, safeguarding New York’s historic religious art and architecture.
The building on Second Avenue dates to 1799, and most of the structure is still original. Though St. Mark’s is not the oldest religious building in the city, the land is “one of the oldest houses of worship in this city,” says Ann Friedman, the Director of the Sacred Sites program at the Conservancy. Before the current building, the land, along with large parts of the Village, were owned by Petrus Stuyvesant in the 1600s. His family chapel was located on the land on the Lower East Side where St. Mark’s now stands.
In 1978 a fire nearly destroyed the church. The building was under repair, and a crew member’s acetylene torch caught the building on fire. No one was injured, but the building needed repair. Anne Sawyer, the Director of St. Mark’s Church, described the roof being destroyed and the windows on the top floor being blown out, although the stain-glass on the bottom level was saved. A decade later another fire took place. “Those two fires ushered in a period of time, roughly about 25 years where the church really struggled,” says Sawyer. But luckily, “both members of the church and the neighborhood came together, and they launched the grassroots campaign to save St. Mark’s.”
There have been several efforts over the years to repair the building. The current problem arose with the attempted repair of the gutters after the fire in the ’70’s; the gutters were repaired incorrectly. The gutter system, known as Yankee gutters which Friedman describes as “basically a trough for water along the edges of the roof on either side,” are meant to filter water out of the building. But currently water is seeping in. “The water drained inside and when you walk in and you look up you, you could see water damage above the upper balcony,” says Sawyer. The water is slowly eroding away at the plaster on the inside.
The gutter repair has already been completed on the West side of the building, and Sawyer is hoping to have the rest of the gutters fixed by the end of next year. But reparations are dependent on a new influx of money. Total restoration of the building is estimated to cost around half a million dollars. Most of the money for the restoration is coming from other sources, and this is the only grant St. Mark’s will receive from the Conservancy for a while. They grant money on a rolling basis, so St. Mark’s won’t be able to receive more money from them for three years.
But the gutter repair is far from the only thing that needs fixing. “After the plaster has dried out for roughly a year, we can repair the plaster damage that has been done,” says Sawyer. “We can paint and re-carpet.”
Dedication to Justice and the Arts
The New York Landmarks Conservancy chose St. Mark’s church for this grant because they were looking for “a really outstanding institution,” according to Friedman. “This one really stands out in terms of the quality of the work and the historical and architectural significance of the building.”
St. Mark’s Church has a special significance to the community through its dedication to justice and the arts. The New York Ballet Theatre is housed within the walls of the church. They have their own studio they moved into six years ago after their old building was torn down and turned into a high-rise. “That’s such a rarity that there’s real support for the arts,” says Diana Byer, the Founder and Artistic Director of Ballet Theatre. “There’s a real feeling of camaraderie and generosity from everyone involved that are here.”
Byers loves elements of the building such as the 19th-century stained glass windows, but she’s also witnessed issues due to the building’s age. “I have leaks in the office. My window doesn’t shut. So, in the winter, it can get pretty freezing.” She also mentioned the water leaking into the plaster, a gutter-related problem. “It’s such a good place to be that I never complain,” she says. “And you just you walk in the door, and you feel the history.”
“Restoring this historic landmark will be meaningful to all of those people who come into that sacred place,” says Sawyer. “It is our dream for us to get to the place in this pandemic, when we can open wide the gates and open wide the doors and welcome everybody back to St Mark’s.”
This story has been updated to reflect corrections about the New York Landmarks Conservancy grants.