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Manhattan's Historic Churches and Temples Open Their Doors for Tours This Weekend

By Amy Zimmer | May 20, 2011 11:30am

By Amy Zimmer

DNAinfo News Editor

MANHATTAN —  Architecture buffs will have an unprecedented chance this Saturday and Sunday to visit the city's landmark religious institutions as part of the New York Landmarks Conservancy's Sacred Sites Open House Weekend.

"We'll go and look at churches all day in Europe. But it never really occurs to us that we have these great buildings in our own neighborhoods," said Ann-Isabel Friedman, the conservancy's director of the Sacred Sites Program, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this weekend.

"We're encouraging people to be tourists in their own neighborhoods," she said.

The Sacred Sites program, which has given 1,141 grants of more than $7 million to congregations of all denominations statewide, will let New Yorkers peek inside of churches and temples across New York, including more than 30 in Manhattan.

"They're throwing open their doors, producing brochures, scheduling concerts and lectures," said Ann-Isabel Friedman, the conservancy's director of the Sacred Sites Program. "This really is a rare opportunity to get inside these special places in our neighborhoods."

At the Church of the Incarnation, built at Madison Avenue near East 36th Street in 1864, visitors can peer through the stained-glass windows designed by William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and John LaFarge.

Nearby, St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church at Park Avenue and East 33rd Street has monumental carved bronze doors by the famous sculptor Daniel Chester French, who also did the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Inside the famous Temple Emanu-El on East 65 Street and Fifth Avenue — the world's largest synagogue — visitors can explore mosaics created by the finest artisans of the day and see medieval artifacts in its Judaica museum.

Other gems include the Church of the Transfiguration, also known as the Little Church Around the Corner at East 29th Street; the Brotherhood Synagogue, a former Quaker house on Gramercy Park; and the Gothic revival Grace Church at Broadway and East 10th Street designed by James Renwick Jr., the architect of St. Patrick's Cathedral.

The program aims to highlight "the way these buildings are important in their communities," Friedman said, explaining that many of them run nursery schools or senior centers, cultural events or food programs.

Most, but not all, of the buildings on the roster are landmarked. Those that aren't have faced routine calls from real estate developers asking if they wanted to sell, Friedman noted.

"In New York City, Manhattan in particular, before the recession hit, there was a tremendous amount of real estate pressure," she said.

Even for those buildings that are protected, it is often a struggle to preserve them.

"We're hoping for a cultural exchange: that people who are active in one landmark go out to a landmark they've never been to," Friedman said. "From one landmark to another, it's like creating a network or support group. Many have similar issues of filling them and funding them."

Visit the New York Landmarks Conservancy's website for a complete list of sacred sites open Saturday and Sunday.