Save The Church of the Nativity, in Manhattan


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By Joseph Masheck 

I am a member of Docomomo because at the principal Mass of my parish church, Corpus Christi, I long sat in front of the indomitable Dorothy Miner (1936-2008). Dorothy, as many of you may know, received a medal from the Association of the Bar of the City of New York for her defense of the landmark preservation law. When she invited my wife and me to join the NY/Tristate chapter we were 2% of the membership because there were only a hundred members! I am now faced with a discouraging prospect, and I wish Dorothy were here for advice: the closing, and likely demolition of, the Church of the Nativity, on Second Avenue in Manhattan. Preservation aside, this is unfortunately part of a larger general program of the Archdiocese of New York to close and merge parishes, destroying buildings for the land – and indeed, another Saint Dorothy may be involved.

Image: Victor Alamo, 75, outside the Roman Catholic Church of the Nativity on Second Avenue in Manhattan, with a tray of burgers he shared with others. Credit: David Gonzalez/The New York Times

In this case we have to deal with the social setting of the architectural problem because the threat to this church is part of a larger destructive program. Let us consider that problem; then the critical problem of Brutalism and antimodernism; then, more briefly but against this background, this particular church as a work of art, and its particular social significance.

The excuse for the archdiocesan program of closing churches is lack of priests, despite the fact that the vast majority of laity would much rather have married priests than lose the beloved churches that their families built. Pope Francis has said that it can be up to the national councils of bishops. If New York considers itself a leader, it ought to be advancing that, instead of closing churches built with the hard-earned savings of the people, as this one is said to be. But despite the cultural prominence of the city of New York as the seat of this diocese, only what the courtier businessmen call ‘development’ matters. It seems cynical to mount this latest New York campaign of closing and demolishing churches under the ironic banner of an Isaiahan new heaven and new earth: ‘Making All Things New.’

It does not seem to matter that Sister Kate Kuenstler and other canon lawyers have successfully challenged, in Rome, similar American church closings, on grounds that at least some are literally against the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church, which acknowledges that the people may literally own their local church. The letters of eviction most recently sent to the latest unfortunate parishes, like Nativity, were on a letterhead reading ‘Office of the Cardinal’ – a personal honorific that is not the legal title of the ‘metropolitan’ of the diocese, and its combination of corporate and monarchist impulses is almost self-satire: how about ‘Cardinal, LLP’!

I suspect that the sale and demolition of churches will produce a situation more dire than a lack of priests. Soon our society will be sufficiently secular that demands will be made that no church property be tax-free; should that succeed, what is happening today will have been a cause. It’s not only a rip-off of the people’s real estate: the administration never attempts to minister to the often college-educated people who come to occupy the land they sell. In the 1950s-‘60s slum-clearance projects, both lower and middle-class, provision was always made for saving churches and synagogues for the new residents. Now the new residential neighborhoods never have any new churches. At least when a museum deaccessions a painting, it’s supposed to buy another painting. What better point of fact than eliminating the modernist Church of the Nativity in the real-estate men’s own made-up locale, the ‘East Village.’

Yes, the church in question might be considered a ‘Brutalist’ building. But first we have to deal with general American and Catholic anti-modernism, which has lately focused on that as a style. This architectural anti-modernism has waxed ever since Postmodernism seemed to allow conservatives to disguise misunderstanding of their own historical time in a phony appeal to tradition. Two postwar modernist Catholic church architects in Europe are particularly hated by these miscreants: the Rudolf Schwarz (1897-1961), a great German friend of Mies van der Rohe’s now despised by conservatives who accuse him of mere immanentism out of lust for a defunct ‘enchantment,’ and the Austrian Ottokar Ukl (1931-2011), whom I knew and have written about. (I have discussed this background of ignorant Catholic hostility toward architectural modernity in a brief essay ‘Unholy Antimodernism,’ in the Journal of Architectural Education for February 2009.)

Exterior of the Church of the Nativitiy. Credit: E.V. Grieve


Parishioners at the Church of the Nativity. The East Village church is to close as part of the reorganization by the Archdiocese of New York. Photo: Peter J. Smith for the Wall Street Journal

As for Brutalism in particular, the once rather ironic harshness of the name itself is probably responsible for some prejudice against the church at hand. But I happen to think that this church is a very interesting case to have around as that style comes up for reconsideration. Apart from the question of reinforced concrete in respect to that early masterpiece, Alison and Peter Smithson’s 1954 Huntstanton School, in England, which is actually of slender steel and glass and not concrete (bulky or not), I think there might be is an onus of a church’s looking ‘industrial.’ I do not understand this as a criticism of any building in the industrial age, unless one wanted to argue that churches ought now to look ‘post-industrial’ or even virtual, which is hardly what is intended. After all, the bay system that made the Gothic cathedrals possible was developed for barns: the point, after all, being sublimatory not escapist.

The actual Church of the Nativity, built in 1968-70, by Genovese & Maddalene, on Second Avenue between East Second and Third Streets, in Manhattan, already replaced what itself should probably have been a listed building: a wooden Greek Revival building, originally the Second Avenue Presbyterian Church, 1832, by Town & Davis. Normally I would root for them, since my very first article was on Town & Davis (J SAH, 1966), though the first edition of the A.I.A. Guide (1967) says only of that building at that time, “Now a seedy and uncared for remnant”. I only really know Genovese & Maddalene’s now closed church from the outside, having only been inside once very briefly, though liking it. But I do know the outside quite well, since I like to frequent the Friday night meetings of the Catholic Worker, around the corner, a fact which is about to become relevant.

An article by Michael Luo in the New York Times (March 30, 2006), says that a 1971 parish history records a statement of the parish council (unclear when) about a church seemingly still to be, if not under way: “We are not shopping for a Cadillac, but a building that is functional, economical and simple.” Legally relevant now is Luo’s recording the fact that “Parishioners eventually collected enough money to commission a bare-bones building that has served the church for 37 years.” Also: “The parish's main claim to fame today is that Dorothy Day, the writer and social worker who founded the Catholic Worker movement, worshiped there for decades.” Actually, if we turn to Dorothy Day’s reminiscences in On Pilgrimage: The Sixties (1972), we find under “October 1968” a statement that may have pertained to the old church and yet might hold equally true for a well known photograph by Bob Fitch, c. 1970, in which Day is shown praying in the markedly lofty new one: “I myself like a nice big parish church, where one can get a wonderful sense of space and privacy and quiet. Nativity Church on Second Avenue and Second Street, is our present church, and was when we [the Catholic Workers] lived at 223 Chrystie Street.”

Dorothy Day Praying at the Church of the Nativity, New York, c. 1970. Photograph by Bob Fitch. Marquette University Archives. Milwaukee.

I have come to really admire the exterior, to the point where I could defend the building by arguing that nowadays, with so many people thinking that anything termed Brutalism is necessarily bad, and many commercial demolitions following suit, we are going to need some decent examples just to talk about an important style critically and historically. But I would rather take a different tack: suppose one had never heard of Brutalism. In that case, I think it would be clearer that this is a very interesting façade; and if I knew nothing about it, I would say that it likely registers the new appreciation at that time of Russian constructivist art and architecture, being a bold asymmetrical composition as well as a ‘construction.’ And this had important contemporary consequences in New York sculpture, in view of Minimalism with a capital ‘M’, as in, preeminently, the work of the sculptor Robert Morris, including his boxy ‘Column’ pieces (which are really piers!).

Hemmed in on both sides, the building asserts itself by moving far enough back from the building line to introduce a sculpturesque interplay, not merely of light and shade but also of solids and voids, in which a large, might-have-been crashing horizontal beam across the whole front participates in an interplay of volumes, including, down on the ground, the boxy outside brick wall of what I think are built-in confessionals inside. In fact, what looks like the big horizontal beam proves on closer view to be an extended box faced with rectangular concrete panels of varying widths. From any distance, it would seem almost a pun to think of this beam as the shaft of a big abstract recumbent cross, in combination with a shorter vertical rectangular prism of similar width behind it that does have a long metal cross attached to it. Suffice it to say that the great beam keeps visually apart the left- and right-hand neighboring brick tenements as a primitivizingly elemental visual buttress. I think this building has to grow on one. I used to walk by it without a thought; and then I would consider the problem of ‘Brutalism.’ However, for several years I have thought it an artistic blessing.

Now the social point. To me, association values count as almost nothing in architecture: I am the person who stays in the car when everybody else wants to see Balzac’s house. I think of ‘historical’ arguments as just pragmatic ways of saving good buildings: art-historical arguments should be what we’re talking about. In this case, however, I must question how the Archdiocese of New York can in conscience seek to tear down the church that was not only used by someone up for sainthood, the now ‘Servant of God’ Dorothy Day (1897-1980), co-founder of the Catholic Worker, as an organization celebrated for direct assistance to the poor, but also the place of her funeral, besides being the continuing parish church of the CW. The City has already demolished Dorothy Day’s beach house on Staten Island. Shouldn’t her own church be something like an important relic? It is troubling to think the diocese can be pursuing the saintly ‘cause’ of Dorothy Day while itching to tear down her very church.

I keep coming back to the idea that if ‘Brutalism,’ even as a stylistic, can be such a bad word, what about the brutality of a campaign – to destroy churches beloved by the people who built them. The Church of England, despite even lower average attendance, has countless churches all over the countryside, centuries-old as well as modern, decently maintained by the people (despite establishment, the government does not maintain the buildings except, I believe, for a program of roof repairs that is open to all denominations). Of course, they have had married priests for a long time, not to mention women. Better end on that; with a salute to Dorothy Day!

Joseph Masheck is a generalist art historian and critic with special interests in abstract painting and modern architecture. Born in Manhattan, he holds three degrees and a varsity letter from Columbia, where his college teachers included Meyer Schapiro (art history) and F. W. Dupee (English). Graduate work in art history, mainly under Rudolf Wittkower and Dorothea Nyberg, included a master’s thesis under Wittkower and a doctoral dissertation under Wittkower and then, on his death, Nyberg.

He currently is a professor of Art History at Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York and is a long standing member of Docomomo US.

More: "Invoking the Radical Spirit of Dorothy Day to Fight a Church Closing" - The New York Times, June 21, 2015