In 10 masses over the past two weekends, there was one subject that the pastor of St. Joseph’s Church on East 87th Street returned to again and again and again and again:
The fate of a fragment.
Specifically, the monumental architectural remnant on East 90th Street that survives from the neo-Classical, brick-and-stone chapel of the old St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum, which was the predecessor of his church.
Father Boniface Ramsey is battling to save it.
His 750-plus parishioners have been informed about it from the pulpit. His Parish Bulletin is publishing and disseminating articles about it.
He’s trying to enlist the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in his bid to preserve it. And the community has now begun to rally to Ramsey’s cause.
Built in 1898 to serve the orphanage, which was founded in 1857, the church was deconsecrated in 1918, and its imposing seven-story, entry facade has miraculously endured through two conversions over a century.
Now, it is endangered as never before:
The remnant is spectacularly embedded into the 12-story condominium building at 402 East 90th St. — and it stands sentinel over a construction pit one plot to the east where the Spence School is building a six-story, 85-foot tall athletic complex.
Community leaders have suggested that Spence erect a glass-curtain wall on the west side of its development site so that the architectural feature can remain on view. So far, the schools hasn’t publicly changed its plans, and when the project is completed, the façade will be totally obscured, perhaps for generations, perhaps forever.
The old Yorkville vestigial wall was the subject of a Page One story — “The Ghostly Remnant” — in the Our Town issue of Jan. 10-16, and on Jan. 12, two days after it was published, Ramsey wrote a letter to Sarah Carroll, the chair of the city’s landmarks agency.
“I think that there is merit to preserving the old church facade for view on at least three counts,” the parish priest wrote.
“It is a monumental structure — not great architecture, perhaps, but entirely respectable and grand and powerful,” he said.
In addition, it is a “very significant part of Yorkville’s history and heritage” that harkens back to the period, between 1884 and 1918, when the orphanage occupied the entire city block bounded by 89th and 90th Streets and First and York Avenues, Ramsey wrote.
Finally, he added, “It may be unique in the city that such a large piece of architecture has been incorporated into another building and presents such a striking appearance; it is certainly a remarkable curiosity.”
In his letter, Ramsey told Carroll that he was bringing the matter to her attention in hopes that LPC would have a say about keeping the old façade in view.
And he added, “There are ways of doing so that would be creative and interesting and that would reflect well on Spence School.”
In a brief statement on Jan. 22, an agency spokesperson said, “The Landmarks Preservation Commission received a request to evaluate the church remnant as a potential landmark and it is currently under review.”
Thus far, two requests for review have been submitted to the LPC. The agency’s standard procedure is to evaluate all requests that come in, even if it’s only one.
Spence, the prestigious all-girls, K-12, college-prep school with 751 students and a $52,050 tuition, did not respond to queries by press time.
Meanwhile, Rachel Levy, executive director of the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, which is researching and documenting the site, noted a “groundswell of interest and passion in the community to find a creative solution” to preserving the artifact.
“Friends is working to support and amplify those efforts,” she said, adding that the support from Ramsey — whom she called “today’s voice of St. Joseph’s legacy in the neighborhood” — is particularly compelling.
“Friends agrees with those who fervently hope Spence will reconsider the possibilities for incorporating the façade into the new structure,” Levy said. “Seen as a whole, the site encompasses several hundred years of New York City history, especially the immigrants who shaped our neighborhoods, and the contributions of philanthropic institutions.”
Also weighing in on Tuesday was East Side City Council Member Ben Kallos, who said his office has reached out to Spence in an effort to “see what if any measure can be taken to preserve” the façade.
“I hope that if Spence sees a feasible option to preserve the architectural remains, they take it,” Kallos added.
In a time of over-building on the East Side, the interested parties should all sit down and seek to forge a solution, suggested state Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, who represents the block.
“Historic designations help to preserve the character and integrity of neighborhoods,” she said. “Given the striking significance and splendor of the facade amidst the substantial over-development of Yorkville, I am hopeful that the fine leadership of Spence, the LPC staff and Father Ramsey will work towards an amicable solution.”
And Seawright added, “The community will be watching for such progress with great interest.”