Whatever its fate, the big and abandoned Methodist Church in Bleecker Square will leave a lasting legacy in the community — even if it’s just a street name.
Church Street, named for the giant 1868 edifice, should always be there, connecting North Main Street to Bleecker Street.
But there is growing doubt about the future of the church. Salvage crews have lately removed the stained glass windows and the steeple clock, despite a city directive to cease, and Mayor Dayton King said he fears the group that has owned the building for 10 years — the Church of God of Prophecy, based in Cleveland, Tenn. — plans to walk away from it.
The city is already in the process of demolishing the First Baptist Church on South Main Street, another historic church and one that last served a small congregation in 1998. It should become a vacant lot sometime next month, its landmark steeple erased from the skyline.
Gloversville native Vince DeSantis, the City Court judge and the person who led the effort to save the Glove Theatre, is deeply disturbed to witness the incremental loss of parts of the city’s heritage.
“For more than a century, the people of Gloversville looked up to see that spire,” DeSantis said of the Bleecker Square church. Now, the windows and the clock have been removed and plywood installed in the openings.
“It’s like looking into the eyes of a corpse,” DeSantis said.
“If this were Moscow, that would be the Onion Dome. It was the backdrop of downtown and it reminded you of what the community used to be,” he said.
The Romanesque building constructed just after the Civil War with horses, ropes and levers, DeSantis said, reminds residents today that “the barbarians are at the gates and the community is being sacked. It just hits me.”
The church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.
Fulton County Historian Peter Betz shares DeSantis’ view, but he points out there are a number of beautiful but derelict historic churches in the county and all of them are for sale.
“Who wants it?” Betz asked of the Bleecker Square church. “No one could heat it.” The Methodists sold the structure to the Tennessee church in 2000 after the Gloversville congregation merged with one in Johnstown. The Tennessee organization held services there for just a few years.
Without an alternative use in mind for an old church, Betz said, it is not enough to declare “they should be preserved as excellent examples of architecture and workmanship.”
Finding uses for abandoned churches is a challenging and costly prospect, Betz said, but he points out a number of examples of private restorations of historic buildings, a list that includes the FJ&G Railroad Station in Northville and DeSantis’ own efforts on the Gustav Levor home on Prospect Avenue in Gloversville.
Johnstown City Historian Noel Levee said, “There always should be more historic preservation.” Levee, who worked with city officials on the new comprehensive plan that ultimately dropped a proposal to create a historic district on and around Main Street, said he is heartened by private restoration projects at the Knox Mansion, Johnstown YMCA and the former Johnstown Knitting Mill. The former Pagano Gloves building has also been restored while creating office and living space.
“It would be nice to bring them back to their architectural origins,” Levee said of the Main Street buildings constructed mostly in the 1880s.
But, “you can’t force people.” And even if a historic district were created, all the existing structures would be grandfathered in their existing condition, he said.
Levee said he is concerned about the two adjacent 1881 buildings (one of them originally the F.J. Moore Building) that until recently housed the Rainbow Restaurant, once the principal meeting place for area organizations.
When historic preservation is discussed in Fulton County, it is not long before someone mentions the transformation of Saratoga Springs over the past 30 years. That community began turning around in the late 1970s, but of course it has two racetracks, a casino, Skidmore College, the Northway and Saratoga Lake.
“Saratoga Springs is a much different community than Gloversville and Johnstown,” said Erin M. Tobin, regional director for technical and grant programs at The Preservation League of New York State.
The Albany-based organization provides technical assistance to individuals, communities and groups interested in saving buildings. It also has small grants available to fund such initial efforts as taking inventory of buildings.
Historic preservation, Tobin said, is often “a brick-by-brick, grassroots effort. A few inspired, passionate people can really make a big difference,” she said.
“Downtown Gloversville is such a fantastic place,” she said, discussing the Victorian-era buildings and the ornate Carnegie Library.
If there is enough interest in saving the Bleecker Square church or other structures, Tobin said residents have to organize and brainstorm and identify new uses.
“I can’t think of a community that doesn’t want to rally and get behind preservation of historic buildings,” she said. “It can be done.” She cited an effort focusing on downtown Fort Plain.
Gloversville should not give up on saving the big church, said Samantha Bosshart, executive director of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation.
example of success
Bosshart quickly points to what is now the Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs, a center for arts and community events in a former Methodist Church, long vacant and in danger of collapse. The arts center remains a work in progress. Bosshart said the church became a topic of discussion in 1999 and is now being saved by a not-for-profit group that organized to take on the project.
“Churches have been redeveloped,” she said, “it takes time and the right developer.”
The Preservation Foundation, created in 1977 as part of a community action plan to address deteriorating buildings, has lately identified 10 significant structures that must be restored.
Efforts are also focused on the Beekman Street neighborhood, where some property owners are participating in a matching grant program offering state Main Street funding for facades or more extensive work.
If residents in Gloversville are serious about saving some buildings, Bosshart said, it will be necessary to generate not only community support but an alternative plan to demolition.
“It can cost thousands and thousands of dollars to restore a building,” Bosshart said, “but it costs much less to patch or replace a roof. A building can be mothballed while plans take shape.”
Preserving the building, Bosshart said, “is a lot better for a community than a parking lot. When they’re gone, you lose a piece of the community.”
For the past eight years, DeSantis has been taking steps to ensure the historic Victorian home owned by leather baron Gustav Levor is saved.
To accomplish his goal, DeSantis secured placement of the 1892 home on the National Register of Historic Places and assembled a group of craftsmen able to view remnants or old photographs and recreate the splendor of the home, from the artfully shaped spindles and balusters in the front porch railings to the wainscoting and the unique paint colors. The mansion, cut up into six apartments in the late 1960s, had to be reconnected and restored to its original layout.
DeSantis said it was his intention to qualify for a federal historic preservation tax credit, but it was soon evident he could not finish the job in the required five-year window.
“I didn’t have the money to tackle it on that schedule,” he said. “The job was and still is enormous.” He described linoleum glued over parquet floors and woodwork damaged or destroyed.
The priority was the exterior, DeSantis said, because “that’s what really showed … it was very unsightly and a detriment to the neighborhood.”
This spring, the focus will return to the interior, starting with the kitchen, he said. “It’s a labor of love … it’s got to be something you’re really interested in.”