NEW YORK (RNS) — Three years after a six-alarm fire ravaged Manhattan’s Middle Collegiate Church, members of the congregation gathered on Monday (Nov. 20) to watch the first steps of the façade’s demolition.
“Even though this is a difficult decision, it is the right one for us, so we can move forward, so we can build back better,” said the Rev. Dr. Jacqueline Lewis, the church’s senior minister.
It was a bittersweet day. After the fire erupted, the façade became for some a “beacon of hope.” But uncertainty grew over whether it could be salvaged. Earlier this month, the city’s landmark preservation commission granted permission to demolish the severely damaged façade.
Starting with the north tower, the three-month-long demolition should leave the façade’s arch untouched. The congregation hopes to move back to an adjacent building onsite by the end of 2024. That building, on 50 East 7th Street, didn’t burn but was damaged by water used to control the church’s fire.
The first phase of the reconstruction will focus on restoring the first floors of this partially damaged five-story building. Once the old sanctuary is reconstructed, the church plans to hold services on the first floor and lease the ground floor to a “like-minded, mission-aligned partner,” Lewis said.
The congregation is already working on architectural plans, with an expected cost of between $30 – $40 million. As of Nov. 1, the church had raised $6 million.
After the fire, Middle Church held services online before gathering at East End Temple, a nearby Reform synagogue. Joshua Stanton, East End’s rabbi, said the arrangement worked well.
“It has been a beautiful collaboration, a beautiful partnership,” said Stanton. “In my mind, it is the essence of pluralism. You have to actually love your neighbor and actually act on it.”
The façade’s demolition left him sad, but he is also eager to see the new sanctuary completed, he said.
“My hope and prayers for Middle Church community, is that it rises as never before in ways that inspire us, as your church already has for centuries,” Stanton told Lewis during a press conference.