Community fortifies a landmark church
By TIM O'BRIEN,
Times Union Staff writer
First published Thursday, July 12, 2007
ALBANY -- The pews are long gone, the stained-glass windows are missing paint, and Mass has not been held there in 14 years.
But the mood is still celebratory at St. Joseph's Church, the empty building whose towering steeple is an Albany landmark. Citizens, organized as Committee 150, are celebrating that they've reached their goal of raising $150,000 to stabilize, and thus save, the building.
"We don't know ultimately how the building will be used," said Colleen Ryan, who co-founded Committee 150 with Elizabeth Griffin. "We just want to make sure the building remains standing until someone comes along with a good idea."
In 1994, the Albany Diocese closed the church, saying there were not enough parishioners to keep it open, but preservationists don't want to lose such a central feature of the neighborhood.
"The Ten Broeck Triangle would be totally and completely different without this jewel in the middle of it," Assemblyman Jack McEneny, D-Albany, said at the reception to celebrate the effort. "This magnificent structure once held 1,000 individuals, and you had to get here at 11 p.m. to get a seat for midnight Mass."
In 2001, Mayor Jerry Jennings had the property seized from its then-owner, a local businesswoman who bought the church from the diocese and planned to turn it into a banquet hall. The Historic Albany Foundation, which now owns the former church, received a $300,000 state grant in 2003 for repairs, but it needed to raise a matching amount.
The foundation raised some money on its own, leaving about a $60,000 shortfall.
Susan Holland, the foundation's executive director, praised the efforts of Committee 150.
"It's wonderful they were able to engage over 1,100 people in this community to give money to this site," she said.
Investment counselor Candace King Weir, owner of C.L. King & Associates, donated $50,000, pledging to give $1 for every $2 raised.
"I have a great love of historic preservation," she said. "I've always admired St. Joseph's. How can you not support this? We don't have that many really special buildings in this area."
A new roof has been built and repairs made to the masonry by the entrance. A support column in danger of collapse also was fixed.
"This column had actually failed, and the roof had dropped two feet," Ryan said.
The Historic Albany Foundation took on the work because St. Joseph's is such an important piece of architecture, Holland said.
"It is an integral part of the skyline of Albany," she said. "You can see it from any direction."
The foundation plans to conduct a feasibility study to determine how much money it would take to restore the church for another use. It does not intend to reopen the building itself.
"Our hope is that by putting together a tool kit for restoration, we could get it ready for somebody," she said.
Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy and a past president of the Historic Albany Foundation, praised the efforts during the reception.
"Your ingenuity in doing this is really inspiring," she said. "You are not alone. There are other communities that are trying to save their churches but you are rare. ... Most nonprofits are working with active churches."
In New York City, she said, developers are trying to buy up churches to build high-rise condominiums, and parishioners are fighting to save St. Brigid's Catholic Church in New York City from being closed.
Like St. Joseph's and Albany's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, that church was designed by famed architect Patrick Keely. A native of Ireland, Keely designed hundreds of churches in the United States.
Committee 150's efforts could be an inspiration to others, Breen said.
"You should take this on the road," she said. "Losing religious structures diminishes us all."
All these efforts, however, are just to keep the building from deteriorating. It doesn't begin to restore St. Joseph's for future use.
"It's not like it stops there," Ryan said.
Tim O'Brien can be reached at 454-5092 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.