Over the course of the past 9 months or so, many people have been working very hard to see that landmark status is achieved for the old St. James Church in Elmhurst, a building which dates to 1735. Its history was detailed in the last edition of the Juniper Berry. Some elected officials have been on board, but others need to become a lot more enthusiastic in order for this to succeed. Here is a summary of their actions and inactions.
Council Member Danny Dromm: He is the elected official that the Landmarks Preservation Commission would be most likely to listen to. The LPC’s decisions are reviewed and either passed or rejected by the City Council. The members of the Council generally vote according to the way the local member votes. Dromm has been telling activists that he is “very concerned” about the preservation of St. James, but to our knowledge has not petitioned the LPC to landmark the building. Multiple letters to his office about the subject have gone unanswered.
State Senator Toby Stavisky: When I asked her at a civic function last December if she had written to the LPC as I had requested, her reply was, “Of course I have. It’s in my district and of great concern to me.” The following day when I called her office asking for a copy of this letter, I was told she did not write one. Multiple letters sent to Ms. Stavisky about this issue have gone unanswered.
Borough President Melinda Katz: She told a concerned resident at a civic function last year that she was aware of the situation and was “very concerned” about it. Multiple letters sent to her have gone unanswered. An e-mail sent to her Director of Constituent Services, Ann Marie Boranian, resulted in a phone call to me on May 2, where she confirmed that she had received my letters sent in 2015 as well as a letter from JPCA regarding landmarking for the church. She did not explain why the letters were ignored, but said that a staff member would be reviewing the issue. That May 2 phone call was the last I heard from the Borough President’s office.
Public Advocate Letitia James: When multiple community groups are in favor of preserving a piece of neighborhood history, you would think that someone with the title of “public advocate” would step in. Ms. James received all of the letters sent to the other elected officials, but has chosen to stay out of it.
Mayor Bill de Blasio: Mr. de Blasio was contacted via the Queens representative for his Community Affairs Unit on May 12th. There has been no action by them thus far.
State Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry: When I wrote to him asking him to intervene, he immediately sent a letter to the LPC detailing the reasons why they should reconsider their rejection of the church as a landmark (this letter was printed in the September 2015 issue of the Juniper Berry). A big thank you to Mr. Aubry, it’s a pleasure working with you.
State Senator Tony Avella: He certainly has done the most for the cause. He was the first to petition the Landmarks Commission about the church, is in contact with the Diocese about the state of the property and its future, and has offered to host a meeting this fall with the stakeholders. Sadly, we have no choice but to turn to someone who represents the other side of the borough in order to get most things done. It’s been that way for far too long.
Congress Member Grace Meng: After being contacted, her office found out who was handling the real estate for the The Episcopal Diocese of Long Island and had a discussion. She then responded to me with the letter below:
My office has been in contact with Reverend Andrew Durbidge, the Real Estate Manager for the Diocese of Long Island. The Diocese assured me that it fully understands the historic significance of the church, and is currently developing a new strategic plan for its ministry in Elmhurst including the use of its property. According to Reverend Durbidge, the Diocese does not plan to sell the church, and is seeking to retain the church building within a redeveloped site. The Parish has already hired an architect and begun this project.
Reverend Durbidge also stated that the Diocese would like to see the historic site compliment the new Queens library and will explore how best to achieve this in their current investigations. Given the Diocese’s recognition of the importance of the church building, and its consideration of the community’s interest in the project, I urge you to remain in close contact with Reverend Durbidge regarding this matter. While designating the church for landmark status is not part of the Diocese’s current plan, a continuous and thorough dialogue on this subject will benefit all interested parties. It is with this in mind that I am happy to work in conjunction with my colleagues in government to schedule a meeting between the Diocese and community leaders.
It is in our collective best interest to ensure that future generations remain connected with the storied past of our borough. Toward this end, I look forward to continuing our work together to foster cooperation between the church and the larger borough community.
Member of Congress
We look forward to working with Grace as we continue to pursue landmarking. This letter reveals that there are, in fact, plans to develop the site as well as a plan to preserve the building. After receiving Meng’s letter, I reached out to the Diocese myself. This e-mail reply gives us hope for the future of the church:
Thank you for your email. We would certainly welcome sitting down with you and State Senator Avella in due course. Can I suggest we schedule this for the early fall when we will have a more developed idea of the parish’s future ministry use of the Old St James property? The parish is currently undertaking a ministry review and we are supporting that with a property review. The results of the two investigations will be considered by the Bishop’s Committee over the summer.
Please be assured that we understand the historic nature of the Old St James property and it is important for us as a church.
The Rev. Canon Andrew Durbidge
The Cathedral of the Incarnation
Real Estate Manager,
The Episcopal Diocese of Long Island
Multiple organizations are interested in the preservation of St. James. They include Juniper Park Civic Association, COMET, Elmhurst United, Newtown Civic Association, Newtown Historical Society, Historic Districts Council, the City Club of New York and the New York Landmarks Conservancy, to name a few. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this building is one of the most historic sites in all of Queens, our city, our state and our country. When we meet this fall, our hope is that the Diocese will show us a plan that adequately protects the church. It is important to note that the Diocese has not objected to obtaining landmark status for the church; it’s just not part of their plan currently. Our plan is to convince them that official landmark status is a priority in order to protect it for future generations.