Saving the sacrosanct

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The Landmarks Conservancy awards matching grants to two storied sites in Chelsea — the “Christmas Church” and a Tibetan Buddhist temple frequented by the Dalai Lama


  • St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, at 346 West 20th Street in Chelsea, has received a $25,000 matching grant from the New York Landmarks Conservancy that will help the fabled "Christmas Church" shore up its 180-year-old exterior walls. Photo: New York Landmarks Conservancy

  • Yeshe Nyingpo, a Tibetan Buddhist temple in a landmarked 1846 Greek Revival rowhouse at 19 West 16th Street in Chelsea, has received a $3,000 matching grant from the New York Landmarks Conservancy to help it restore its recessed, double-leaf, mahogany front door. Photo: New York Landmarks Conservancy

Clement Clarke Moore is best known as the presumed author in 1823 of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which has been beloved by generations of school children for its immortal opening line, “Twas the night before Christmas.”

Less well known is that Moore was also a fabulously wealthy, God-fearing churchman and property owner in Chelsea who transformed his grand country estate into one of the most desirable and elegant residential neighborhoods in the city.

Among his great gifts: Vast tracts of donated land, including his apple orchard, which became the sites of the General Theological Seminary and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, twin institutions that have long helped to define, preserve and enlighten the community.

As the guiding light at St. Peter’s — or the “Christmas Church,” as it’s been called for 180 years — Moore served variously as warden, usher, organist, vestryman, trustee, ecclesiastical scholar and unofficial publicist. He also underwrote the bulk of its construction costs.

Unfortunately, the timbers, masonry and gables he paid for have seen better days. No wonder. St. Peter’s, located at 346 West 20th Street, was consecrated in 1838 and survives from an era when church spires, steeples and bell towers dwarfed every other structure on the skyline.

Since then, the gales off the Hudson River and the punishing winters of Chelsea have exacted their toll, and so, for decades, the church has been grappling with rotted planking and crumbling masonry, washed-out mortar and loose stones, a leaking roof and a drooping ceiling.

Now, the New York Landmarks Conservancy is coming to the rescue. Again. The nonprofit, which funds restoration projects that preserve and protect the city’s architectural legacy, has been helping St. Peter’s repair its sanctuary in multiple stages since 1988.

The group established its “sacred sites grant program” 31 years ago to assist religious organizations statewide in preserving their historic properties, and St. Peter’s was one of the first institutions tapped to receive funding.

“It’s one of the most architecturally and historically significant religious buildings in the city,” said Ann-Isabel Friedman, the director of the Conservancy’s sacred sites program.

“It has incredible stained glass and murals and original woodwork, it’s one of the country’s earliest Gothic Revival churches, and it’s significant for its role in the history of Chelsea and its connections with Moore,” she added.

Since its launch in 1986, the program has awarded 780 congregations some 1,400 grants tallying more than $10.4 million, sums that churches and synagogues are typically required to match in a process that has helped leverage roughly $630 million in restoration projects.

The grants help professionalize what stewards of religious buildings often dub the “patch-and-pray method,” referring to rehabilitation efforts that sometimes appears haphazard.

In announcing its new round of sacred site challenge grants last week, Conservancy funders pledged $25,000 to St. Peter’s that, once matched, will help jumpstart an ambitious $1 million structural and exterior masonry restoration project.

It follows an earlier $25,000 matching grant in 2014 that helped fuel a $2 million roof repair-and-replacement project that was completed last October. Previous grants, in 1988, 1995 and 2000, began the task of stabilizing and shoring up St. Peter’s, which was briefly closed in 1941 and again in 1990 over fears its sanctuary had become unsafe.

“We’re giving the church TLC,” said the Reverend Stephen Harding, who is guiding the restoration. “It needs a lot of work and a lot of love, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

The Conservancy also provided a $3,000 matching grant to Yeshe Nyingpo, a Tibetan Buddhist temple in a landmarked Greek Revival rowhouse that was built around 1846 at 19 West 16th Street in Chelsea.

“It’s a very special building — it’s so blessed and so holy, filled with prayers and blessings — and the Dalai Lama sometimes comes here when he’s in town,” said Theresa Giorgi, the general manager of the temple, which has occupied the townhouse since 1976.

There is a special throne in the building maintained for the Dalai Lama’s personal use, she added.

The funds will be used to restore the temple’s recessed, double-leaf, mahogany front door. “We were afraid that at any moment, that door was going to fall off its hinges,” Giorgi said.

For a nonprofit sacred space with a modest budget, raising the $3,000 match was not easy: “It took over a year, and we got donations from all over the world — Spain, Italy, Portugal, California — but we did it!” she said. The restoration work on Yeshe Nyingpo’s entry door began on Monday, January 22nd.

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