Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Church of St. Joseph - Towers Coming Down

(photo from Diocese of Brooklyn website)

I'll hopefully add photographic evidence of this tonight or tomorrow, but it appears that the Church of St. Joseph on Pacific Street between Underhill and Vanderbilt is losing its towers as part of the extensive renovation and restoration the church is undergoing. The towers, which looked to be in a state of fairly severe disrepair before the scaffolding went up, are about halfway to being disassembled as of this morning, when I spied them on a run.

While I couldn't find more information about the renovation online or by calling the parish, the chatter on the comment thread at this site suggests that the building is being overhauled for a return to service as a parish church, and possibly as the new Cathedral of Brooklyn. The current cathedral (and also the borough's first Catholic Church), the Cathedral Basilica of St. James at Jay and Chapel Streets, is both on the smaller side and a long haul for many of the borough's Catholics, and as a result, many of the biggest services are now held in Sunset Park at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Moving the cathedral has been suggested before--Brooklyn's legendary Bishop Loughlin began work on one that becamse the parish church of St. John in Bed-Stuy--but why St. Joseph's, built in 1912 on the site of an earlier church organized in 1861, would earn the honor isn't clear.

The fight over preserving churches with dwindling congregations and fading physical plants is a thorny one. Yesterday, the Observer ran an article about the battle over the landmarking of a red-sandstone Presbyterian church on the UWS (the church was opposed to the move), and earlier today, Brownstoner posted a Brooklyn Eagle article about the fight to preserve Our Lady of Loreto in Ocean Hill. Preservationists make a strong case about the beauty of these buildings and their enduring architectural contribution to New York City's streetscapes. At the same time, they're expensive to maintain, difficult to sell in their current form, and even more difficult and expensive to repurpose. A few have become condos (which was the original plan on the UWS) and a few others have been sold to new congregations, but condos aren't rising right now and new churches can find cheaper, less-development-restricted spaces in old movie houses and union halls and the like. Without strong support form parishoners, church leaders say that preserving these elegant, empty halls isn't a good use of their funds--a building's beauty doesn't give sermons or provide services.

In a perfect world, the neighborhood groups that want these structures landmarked would also have great ideas for filling the spaces and managing the buildings. Sadly, they can't do this at the rate these buildings are closing, and the empty churches (and movie palaces, and union halls) that litter our urban landscapes may be evidence of a larger societal move away from the communal experience, be it the church dinner or the matinee, and into our own homes, where entertainment, local politics, and even worship can be conducted from a couch with a remote or a laptop.


  1. Hi Nick,

    I've been following your blog for a little while and enjoying all the updates on the neighborhood. I have a small studio on Dean St. between Franklin & Bedford where, besides creating my performance work, I teach small yoga and pilates classes and do bodywork ( The studio is full of locals and has a great vibe - besides classes we also host artist salons, workshops and local craft fairs. You're welcome to visit if you like, and if you're the yoga or pilates type, to take a free class. I'm giving a few free classes in the next few days (the info is on the website), but you're welcome to come any time.


  2. Hi Nick,

    I used to live down the street from this church so was kind of shocked to see one of the towers had been removed when I went by last December. I asked the workmen and they said the whole church was being renovated and the tower was being rebuilt. Mind you their English wasn't great so maybe they didn't understand my question (or me their answer).

    But that was my understanding at the time, that the tower would be rebuilt.