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Historic churches: more seek freedom from strict landmark law

The problem was not atypical. Three Presbyterian churches within four blocks of each other in downtown Rochester were losing members and money to the suburbs. The cost of keeping up the structures was difficult for the individual congregations.

But none wanted its buildings to fall under a wrecking ball. So the churches came up with a creative solution. The three merged into one congregation, using one of the Presbyterian churches. Another church building was sold for adaptive use as a school of music, which conducts classes and concerts.

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The oldest church, built in 1856 and added to in 1890, was sold at a low price to a growing black congregation that had not yet been able to afford its own church building.

''In general, churches are the most outstanding buildings in a community,'' said Billie Harrington at a recent conference on caring for historic religious properties sponsored by the Preservation League of New York State. Ms. Harrington, director emeritus of the Landmark Society of Western New York in Rochester, says it is vital to save the buildings that contributed to the history and character of a community.

But in New York State there are others who say that strict landmarking laws infringe on congregations' duty to care for the human and spiritual needs of a community.

''These sets of laws are designed to do something good - to preserve buildings that are noteworthy architecturally and historically,'' says the Rev. N.J. L'Heureux Jr., executive director of the Queens Federation of Churches and chairman of the New York State Interfaith Commission on Landmarking of Religious Properties. But instead, he sees them as a ''direct violation'' of First Amendment laws separating church and state. By landmarking religious properties, he says, government regulates religious decisions.

Nonprofit organizations including churches and synagogues, can apply for hardship status to exempt their building from landmark listing.

In New York City, where development pressures are intense, controversy centers around a proposal at St. Bartholomew's Church on Park Avenue to demolish a portion of the parish house and build an office tower. Part of the building would be used for a new parish house while the rest would be rented. The church has applied to the city Landmarks Preservation Commission, which will either approve or reject the plan. A decision is expected by mid-June.

Legislation has been introduced in the New York State Senate and Assembly that would require local landmarks commission to gain the permission of a church or synagogue before religious buildings could be designated as landmarks. The so-called Flynn-Walsh bill attracted celebrities and large amounts of testimony in February hearings. It is still in committee in both legislative bodies.

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The Rev. Mr. L'Heureux says that religious ministry should be valued over history. Preservationists argue that they are not simply interested in aesthetics.

''Buildings are important, but what is really important is what goes on inside,'' says Beverly Reece of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She adds that her organization is always looking for ways to help poorer congregations overcome economic obstacles to preservation. One reason that more religious and nonprofit organizations are facing such problems is that ''bricks and mortar'' grants and jobs bill funding for preservation have been curtailed under the Reagan administration.

Ms. Reece says that the Flynn-Walsh bill in New York would take away local control of landmarks issues and put them at a state level. She also argues that First Amendment issues do not apply to nonprofit organizations, including churches and synagogues, when they are acting as developers of real estate.

In addition, Ms. Reece quotes a Washington, D.C., religious leader, who pointed out that religous buildings, their art, and their stained-glass windows offer inspiration to a community.

Kevin O'Brien, pastor of St. James Roman Catholic Church in Manhattan's Lower East Side, says his congregation's relations with the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission were ''very harmonious'' as his church faced the decision of either repairing or demolishing its building. Long on the historic landmark list, St. James was found to have significant structural problems requiring costly repairs. The church building was ordered closed by the city.

There was lobbying and pressure from preservationists to save the building, says Mr. O'Brien, but it was based on ''genuine concern for the building.'' He admits the situation would have been more adversarial if the congregation had decided to demolish the building, but ''that's their mandate.''

His church was recently given an award from the New York State Preservation League for ''preservation in the face of overwhelming odds.'' Through community fund raising and use of grants, the church has raised nearly two-thirds of the estimated $600,000 it will need.

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