10 years ago, the NYC government had an opportunity to save a historic church in Maspeth, Queens. Nearly every elected official involved either dropped the ball or did not care.
On a spring day in 2007, I was out for a ride looking for stuff to shoot with a fellow shutterbug. We happened past the St. Saviours site and I recalled reading that it was closed up and endangered via Forgotten-NY. It took us all of a minute to figure out that at a minimum, we could easily get onto the grounds and take a closer look. I don’t think we were really expecting to find the whole place unlocked, but it was our good fortune that access to both the church and parsonage (small house behind it) were entirely unlocked and unguarded.
Knowing that real estate developers, hiding behind an LLC, were the current owners and not likely to grant permission to shoot here, we didn’t waste time asking. I wished I had a better lens that day (focusing was all screwed up on it), but I’m glad I got the shots that I did, for there is no trace of this church today.
We entered from a rear driveway, and stopped first at the parsonage house around back. If anyone was around, it seemed the likely place that they would be holed up. The front door was wide open. Inside, the house was very well intact and completely empty. There were no signs of decay. The building was perfectly livable—a beautiful sanctuary from the hustle and bustle out on the street. The trees outside made this building feel more like a home out in the mountains upstate than one across the street from major NYC industries.
Again, we found the doors open or entirely removed. It was clear that the developers or some angry teens had focused some anger on this building. Having explored hundreds of abandoned buildings over the prior thirty years, it seemed pretty clear to me this was developer vandalism. Angry teens break windows and scrawl graffiti. Here, there was no graffiti, and entire window frames were removed.
Upkeep of these woods had clearly ended long ago. There was quite a bit of litter to be found, and at the rear driveway, someone dumped quite a bit of household trash. It was sad to see.
All along the perimeter of the church there were small ‘prayer huts’ that the Koreans constructed & installed. There were at least half a dozen of them, each with a small sign in korean. I later asked a friend to translate one from a photo, and it read ‘Abraham prayer hunt’.
So what was going on here? How did this once proud sanctuary fall into such decay?
Originally constructed in 1847, the church was designed by Richard Upjohn and constructed by those who lived in the town of Maspeth at the time. For over 150 years, it stood in the center of a block that was covered in native trees.
Originally an Episcopal church, it was sold to the San Sung Korean Methodist Church in 1997. The Koreans soon (2005) sold it to a real estate developer. Neighbors looked on in horror as plywood construction fencing soon went up around the property, and the developer announced plans to bulldoze everything in order to build a bunch of low quality townhouses.
The situation escalated quickly. Dennis Gallagher, the city council representative at the time, did nothing to save the property. Gallagher, a republican, apparently had other things on his mind, and by 2008, was forced to resign from office after pleading guilty to sexual assault.
The community fought hard to save the church and tree-filled property, proposing that it become a park. Maspeth was (and remains today) one of the only neighborhoods in NYC without a park within walking distance of most homes. The battle to preserve this property was lead by the Juniper Park Civic Association and Newtown Historical Society.
In a nefarious act of vandalism, the real estate developer cut down all 185 trees on the property in July 2007. For anyone who closely follows NYC politics, this should come as no surprise: Dennis ‘the abuser’ Gallagher was paid off and working for the real estate developer. Through deliberate inaction, he refused to fight to preserve this property and the woods surrounding it.
The developer eventually struck a deal with the Juniper Park Civic Association and the church was dismantled in the spring of 2008, being placed in storage. I suppose the developers finally came to their senses and realized the optics of a excavator tearing down a church might actually get some press attention. The plan at the time was to reconstruct it on property donated by the nearby All Faith’s cemetery. This of course has yet to happen.
(It is worth noting that Queens, especially at the time, was lacking in local media outlets. Almost none of this story was covered by the press. Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin posted a photo of the church on his personal photo blog and complained of having to throw away his shoes after cycling through the neighborhood (which he called “Masbeth”) in the rain. When commenters nudged him to run a real story about what was happening here, he refused. I guess his precious park slope shoes were more important to focus on). Also worth noting, with the closing of Gothamist, that Jake was exposed this week as an anti-union, anti-working class villain. I guess that’s what happens when you get in bed with a Trumpster like Joe Ricketts.
Before it was gone, we went back for one last look in the winter of 2008. All that was left was a barren moonscape of death and debris.
Politics, and the future.
The story of St. Saviours ties directly to the 2017 city council election. In a year that saw democrats overwhelming win elections vs. republicans, the city council race in Maspeth was a rare exception. Here, a sitting incumbent democrat lost by a razor thin margin against a former democrat running on the republican ticket.
The incumbent, Liz Crowley, had originally voiced support for creating a park on the St. Saviours site when she won a special election to replace Anthony Como (who only served a temporary 6 months after Dennis Gallagher resigned). Funding was apparently lined up, but nothing ever came of it. Adrian Benepe, the NYC Parks Commissioner at the time, also played politics on this one, talking out of both sides of his mouth. He stated he supported a park on the property, but only if the community magically found funding to buy and maintain the property. In other words: no. For reference, when the Episcopal church sold the property to the Korean Methodist church, they paid $450,000. The real estate developer wanted closer to $10 million—a 2000% increase in price over a mere four years. Again, we see real estate developers basically getting away with murder, and inept politicians dropping the ball. Benepe, for the record, also dropped the ball on the Bushwick Inlet Park project a decade earlier, ultimately costing taxpayers literally hundreds of millions of dollars.
Elizabeth Crowley has lost her city council seat this year to Robert Holden – the Juniper Park Civic Association president. Perhaps with Holden in office, funding will be found to get St. Saviours out of storage and rebuilt, assuming it’s still in storage and All Faith’s Cemetery still has property available for it.
The only other Richard Upjohn church in Queens, Trinity Chapel in Far Rockaway, was listed on the the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. If St. Saviours rises again, it will be testament to the power of persistence, and the changing political landscape of Queens.
2017: The warehouse that now sits on the former St. Saviours site.