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Convent Avenue Baptist Church Narrowly Wins Community Board Support for Addition

By Jeff Mays | March 19, 2011 10:39am | Updated on March 20, 2011 10:06am

By Jeff Mays

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

HARLEM—A three-story addition to the Convent Avenue Baptist Church which would house an elevator was deemed "brutish" by members of a community board which approved it by the narrowest of margins.

The proposal was rejected earlier this week when it went before Community Board 9's landmarks committee, but passed by a single vote when the church asked the full board for a letter of support on Thursday.

The church, on West 144th Street, had been advised to consult the community board because it's in the Hamilton Heights Historic District. The plan will now go before the city's Landmarks Preservation Committee.

The $1.4 million addition, which is made of granite with glass windows in front, should be rejected because it does not fit in with the character of the townhouse-filled neighborhood, said members of the board's landmarks committee.

"It's just atrocious," said Walter South, chair of the committee and a city planner with a master's degree in historic preservation.

"In historic districts you should tend to replicate something in the district or go completely modern. This does neither."

"I'm not particularly overwhelmed by the building, but I'm not an architect," said Community Board 9 chairman Larry English who voted in favor of a letter of support. "The church is speaking and this is their money."

Designer Rodney Leon of Rodney Leon Architects said that the design of the addition reflected an effort to satisfy both the client and the community-at-large. Leon designed the African Burial Ground Memorial in lower Manhattan and is also an adjunct professor of advanced design at Pratt Institute School of Architecture.

The church, which has been working on the design for more than two years, rejected more modern glass versions of the proposal, Leon said. After meeting with the landmarks committee, several changes were made, including the scale, pattern and texture of the stone and the amount and variation of the colored glass design.

Leon said the design presented to the board links the addition with the church while also subtly distinguishing itself as something new. The glass windows help to bring light into the granite structure, which measures about 720 square feet.

"We made some good design changes based on the feedback we received, but you can't design by consensus because it waters down the design," said Leon.

For Convent, whose congregation's average age is 58, the addition of an elevator is a matter of survival. The elevator would travel to every level of the church, including the balcony.

Dwight Rainford, a former member of the board of trustees, said the church has wanted to add an elevator since the congregation was first founded in 1942.

Joseph Hand, chair of the elevator committee for the church, said they made every effort to respect the fact that the church is in an historic district.

"The church is keenly aware of the issues raised by the preservation committee. But at the same time, we wanted to maintain the beauty of the church," said Hand.

The church will now head to the city's landmarks committee with its letter of recommendation in hand, though South said he will make that committee aware of some of the board's objections to the project.

"It's not all a question of what you want but also what the community feels comfortable with," he said.