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Clergy Fights Preservationists Over Historic Designation of Russian Orthodox Cathedral

By DNAinfo Staff on March 23, 2010 7:41am  | Updated on March 23, 2010 8:10am

The Russian Orthodox Cathedral in the East Village.
The Russian Orthodox Cathedral in the East Village.
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Barry Munger

By Nicole Breskin

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

EAST VILLAGE — Preservationists are calling on neighbors to fight for landmark status for a 120-year-old Russian Orthodox Cathedral even though some clergy protest that the historical designation could signal the end of the church.

Andrew Berman, of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, and officials from the East Village Community Coalition are encouraging locals to turn out to support the preservation of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral at a hearing on Tuesday. There, the Landmarks Preservation Commission will receive feedback on whether the 59 E. 2nd St. building should be considered for preservation based on its historic status.

“The more than a century-old Russian Orthodox Cathedral is not only a great work of architecture, but it speaks to the great history of the East Village as a place of successive waves of immigrants who transformed this city," Berman told DNAinfo.

But not everyone wants the iconic gothic structure — which was the setting for an orphanage where Angelina Jolie filmed “Salt” — to be landmarked. The Russian Orthodox Cathedral’s clergy are concerned that the landmark designation could add a financial burden that would push the church under.

“Please don’t levy additional burdens of landmarking on a struggling worship community by pushing forward with this new interference,” clergy wrote in a note, which they are encouraging members of the church to sign and send to the commission's chairman Robert Tierney.

“This could lead to the cathedral being forced to eventually cut the pay or benefits of its already meagerly paid staff," the clergy said.

"Even worse, it could eventually lead to … the building to slowly decay, and possibly be sold and converted from a community space church to condos or coops.”

There are no dues or fees associated with landmarking and owners are not required to make changes to their buildings, but any new construction or repairs to the cathedral’s façade are under the purview of the commission. Some have argued that repairing buildings in line within preservationist guidelines can be more expensive.

On the Upper West Side, the congregation of the West Park Presbyterian Church is fighting to have a landmark designation overturned because the worshipers claim they can't afford the upkeep of the church.

But Berman said the cost factor was more of a “misconception” with hundreds of landmarked religious sites in the city.

The Russian Orthodox Cathedral was first converted to a chapel in 1867 by the New York Mission Society, catering to immigrants with services in German, Hungarian, Italian and Russian. It was designed by renowned architect Josiah Cleveland Cady, who would later think up plans for the original Metropolitan Opera House.

The property was purchased by the Orthodox Church of America in 1943. It now has a religious school, a library on Orthodox Christian texts and regular liturgical services.

But it has struggled with financial hardship and was almost turned into an 8-story condo.