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AIA Discusses the Future of St. Mark’s Church – Part Two

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The former St. Mark's Episcopal Church as seen from Main Street in October 2013. Credits: Wiki
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WEST ORANGE, NJ - The New Jersey chapter of the American Institute of Architects is concerned about the future of the historic St. Mark’s Church at the center of West Orange. The AIA says the steeple addition designed by famed architect Richard Upjohn, founder of the AIA, is actually one of the least damaged portions of the building, but as anyone can see—the shell of the church is mostly what’s left.

Justin Mihalik, current president of AIA-NJ, says money will determine a lot of things in the next phase of the life of St. Mark’s. He and other architects joined the town in a meeting on Monday with the current owners of St. Mark’s to discuss that topic and how to move forward.

“The owners of the church did share that they were working with an engineer, and they did make it clear that they very much would like to restore the building, however it would be a monumental task from the standpoint of the cost,” he said.

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One of the big questions is the insurance policy on the property. At the meeting, Mihalik said, “They (the owners) were not able to disclose the insurance policy and the amount that the building was insured for. So, at the moment, it is not known what types of dollars are available through their insurance company that could be used towards the restoration of the building.”

Both the owners and the building department have confirmed that an insurance representative has already been to the site. Records show the church was purchased for $1.6 million, and the representative said he anticipated the insurance policy would be at least for that amount.

Mihalik was very clear that time is not a friend right now, noting winter temps and moisture, whether from rain or snow, will damage the building, and that immediate work needed to be done,  “even just the shoring up and the safety of the building,” is necessary to prevent further damage to the remaining walls,” he said.

The members of the current church are caught up in this. Iglesia De Dios Pentecostal Church owns the landmark, and since the fire it has had to hold services elsewhere. According to Mihalik, services are being held at 827 Clinton Ave in Newark, but a local business is offering space to the church. “One of the local building owners (in West Orange), Drill Construction, owns 80 Main Street, and they did by way of the town offer to the church the space in the building that they could use in order to host services,” he said, also indication that the church is aware that the offer was made so that services could again be made local in West Orange. He said that’s important to them because “the congregation is about 250 people, made up of folks in the general area of the Oranges, and so the church would really like to host services in the area of the church because it would be easier for their congregation to attend.”

Although St. Mark’s is listed as a Federal, state and local historic site—that does not insure any money is available to help in the restoration. Budget cuts in the state budget, as well as limited monies locally, don’t offer much hope of added assistance. It is likely a number of resources will need to be tapped to help save the noteworthy structure.

The AIA estimates that, at minimum, shoring up the existing remaining walls would be upwards of $1 million, and restoring the structure (with a roof and some kind of interior) would be over $5 million, creating a building that could be used in many ways. Restoring the church to its historical pre-fire condition is unlikely, as costs to faithfully restore the detailing of the church would cost well over $40+ million minimum. Citing the personal observations of architect Mark Hewitt, who toured the church before it was sold, Mihalik said “The woodwork in that church was so unique, and of such caliber, that there really isn’t another example of that woodwork here in the US.”

Mihalik says in addition to the insurance money, AIA will be contacting Congressman Donald Payne, in whose 10th Congressional District the church sits, about making some inquiries about possible Federal grants or monies available to help. He also said that AIA itself is looking into what they can do to help financially. “AIA New Jersey is going to reach out to AIA National as well as our Foundation on the national level, which is called the Architect’s Foundation, to see if there are any dollars that the organization is willing to put up toward the shoring or restoration of the church.” He added, “We are, no pun intended, going to ‘tap into’ all the channels we can to try and find funding resources that can be available for the project.”

Another source of possible income is also a mystery right now to the AIA. According to Mihalik, the location of the church’s stained glass windows, some of which date back to 1847, and could include one or more possible early Tiffany works, is unknown. He said, “The windows were removed prior to the fire, and it wasn’t (known) exactly when they were removed, but they were removed by the owners at some point.

There are mixed stories about why they were removed and where they are, but it seems that they are absolutely not on site. They were removed from site and are nowhere to be found.”

Mihalik said he feels the windows were likely made locally, but “clearly the value of a Tiffany stained glass window would absolutely be able to help fund the restoration.”

Mihalik and the AIA say it’s evident many questions need to be answered before a definitive plan for St. Mark’s structure and the entire site is put together. He says the mortgage company will have a say, as well as “whether or not the church (owners are) able to keep the property or whether they would want to sell the property at that point, and the City (sic) of West Orange’s capability to purchase the property and therefore at least guarantee the protection of the building.” The outcome of those decisions will be watched on many levels as the next chapter of St. Mark’s Church unfolds.

American Institute of Architects Discusses the Future of St. Mark’s Church – Part One

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