Making A New Inner‑city Church

Volume 49, Issue 2 :: By Timothy Eckersley Photographs by Norman McGrath

A 1910 garage was reborn as a new church that fronts West 83rd Street in Manhattan, New York.

A 1910 garage was reborn as a new church that fronts West 83rd Street in Manhattan, New York.

Redeemer Presbyterian Church is unique is several ways. It is the first new church to be built in Manhattan in over 20 years, and it involved the adaptive re-use of a 1910 parking garage. This new church built in the midst of a dense city and expensive real estate market includes new kinds of social/community spaces helping to make sacred buildings more relevant in the 21st century, in this case forged by an unusually engaged and youthful congregation.

For its first purpose-built home, this growing congregation of 5,200 had a strong desire to make a gathering place that is not a traditional church, but a place that reflects a dual aim: to be embedded into its community and also to be readily approachable to the diverse population that the church serves.

The dialogue between the client and our architecture firm produced a design in which we believe these aims are clearly expressed. The public face of the building maintains the feel of the mixed-use street in which it is situated, while also contributing a new modern layer to the neighborhood. Once inside, a dynamic lobby leads to an intimate sanctuary—a calm refuge from the busy city.

New tower at the façade’s corner dramatically transforms the garage (see inset of ‘before’ condition).

New tower at the façade’s corner dramatically transforms the garage (see inset of ‘before’ condition).

As the congregation, which was established in New York City in 1988, has grown several rental locations have been used for worship, but a constant imperative has been to create purpose-built worship and community centers serving different parts of the city. This church (known as W83) at West 83rd Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is the first, opened in 2012. The organization of this group is not that of a traditional Presbyterian parish. Shared administrative services are housed in a central office space that is separate from the church locations. While worship is at the core of these church sites, equally important is facilitating community fellowship, gospel hospitality, and religious education. The program for the new buildings is therefore a mix between a church and a community center.

Urban Context

West 83rd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues on the Upper West Side of Manhattan is one of the occasional interruptions in the rhythm of the city grid—a commercial side street.

While north-south avenues are all commercial and major cross streets at about 10-block intervals are usually so, almost all east-west side streets are residential in upper Manhattan. However, as this district was built out in the 1880s and ‘90s, the firehouse and post office (anchors of any traditional neighborhood) were sometimes placed on side street blocks. On this block, parking garages that were annexes of nearby luxury apartment houses on Broadway followed in the 1910s. Today, three parking garages along with tenement houses, a tall storage facility, and small businesses such as a nursery school, a tailor shop, a signmaker, and a gym, join the old firehouse (complete with Dalmatian) and the post office.

After an extended property search, the church settled on this block as an ideal location for its new spiritual base. The parking garage, although an unlikely candidate for re-use, was a practical choice in that its size enabled the inclusion of a large auditorium within its existing volume.

Into the lively mix of the block, the new church façade blends old and new elements. By restoring the fenestration and brickwork of the garage and recreating a simplified cornice and keystones, the base rhythm of the street is maintained. New interventions, such as a double height glazed entry and metal clad attic story, express the new use. The zoning rules allow churches a generous exception to height restrictions. A “House of Worship Tower,” deployed at a corner, incorporates an exposed party wall. After a prolonged debate, a discreet cross was incorporated into the tower design, which rises out of it and is silhouetted against the sky.


‘Third Place’ is a setting for social interaction that reaches out to the neighborhood.

‘Third Place’ is a setting for social interaction that reaches out to the neighborhood.

Programming a ‘Third Place’

To initiate the design we asked the congregation, under the leadership of the oversight team, to collect images and words that expressed the congregation’s wishes for the new church. These images were taken from the natural and built world and conveyed an essential aesthetic that was seminal to our architectural concepts. Very few of these images made reference to traditional church buildings, but focused on images of nature and modern secular architecture.

The program for the building is straightforward: a sanctuary for 874, 16 classrooms for children and adults, and a fellowship hall, with multi-purpose functions in many spaces. A new sub-cellar was required for ancillary functions.

One of the primary goals of this project was to connect in a very direct way with the community, both Redeemer congregants and the neighbors. The idea of a “Third Place,” formulated by sociologist and author Ray Oldenburg, was presented to us by Pastor Tim Keller and comes out of the belief that everyone may benefit from having a welcoming, comfortable, and enriching space beyond their home (“First Place”), and workplace (“Second Place”). The Third Place is a gathering space, a meeting place, or a space to be alone. It needs to be directly tied to the life of the street. It is a place to have a cup of coffee, to sit, to contemplate one’s life, to talk with friends and neighbors. It was important that it feel welcoming to the non-believer. It is an urban room that says to the neighborhood, “This is not just our place: it is also your place.”

Architecturally, we linked the Third Place with the lobby of the building and created a café with tables separated from the street by a two-story glass wall. The main circulation spine of the building is directly off of the Third Place, which links it to all of the functions that define Redeemer’s mission.
The amphitheater worship space, embodying the desire for connectivity among congregants during services, is expressed as a bowl shape that protrudes into the Third Place, thereby signaling its special function to the street.

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Sanctuary, Light, and Acoustics

The industrial quality of the existing building was embraced by the congregation as a way of speaking directly to the urban constituency. In the public areas of the new building much of the “raw” quality of the old garage is therefore left exposed and highlighted by polished concrete floors, exposed brick, and milled steel metalwork. In contrast, the sanctuary is designed to be an ephemeral object inserted into this industrial shell—a place characterized by the folded plaster surfaces of the walls that catch and hold light and the warm wood of the pews. It is through this contrast of language that the sanctuary is marked as a sacred space—the quiet core of the church and its mission.

Through the intensive programming it was determined that the sanctuary was to reflect the notion of one body, one collective brought together for prayer, meditation, and community. To this end, it is just as important for congregants to view other congregants as it is to view the stage. The amphitheater form of the sanctuary reflects this desire. While the predominant image of the sanctuary is of a religious space, the church also wanted it to function as a performance space for both speech and music. The room is also rented for secular events. Full audio-visual capability includes a large drop-down projection screen mounted inside the stage canopy. Curved wood pews enhance this embracing feel and sight lines were carefully studied, resulting in a steep cantilevered balcony.

Many challenging design considerations were resolved in the effort to accommodate multiple programmatic requirements, including lighting, symbolism, and acoustics.

The interplay of light and architecture is both symbolic and practical. As there is little natural light in the sanctuary, it was critical to incorporate artificial light to the most inspiring effect. The design concept focuses on the controlled play of light on the pattern of folded planes in white and off-white textures. These wall and ceiling surfaces envelop the fan shaped form, which is emphasized by the curves of the pews. The lighting is zoned such that it can be darkened for performances or illuminated brightly as needed. Reading is an important activity during a service and the illumination was specifically designed for that task. Stage lighting is also incorporated for performance-specific requirements.

The congregation wanted a sanctuary that is sacred without placing a cross-as-object at the center. The design solution was to have the shape of a cross pressed into the plaster wall behind the dais. Only when illuminated from above is the impression of the cross, with highlights and shadows, visible to the congregation.

The acoustical design achieves a balance between the requirements for both natural and amplified sound. Both aspects are utilized during services. The amphitheater plan, the angled reflective surfaces of walls, ceilings, stage canopy, and balcony rail, together with the placement of absorbent materials, were closely manipulated for their acoustical impact such that music and speech is heard clearly and intimately. A primary objective was to integrate state-of-the-art audio-visual technology with the spatial design, in order to enhance the uncluttered feel of the space.

On the new top floor the building opens up to a 4,000-square-foot loft-like space suffused with natural light from three sides, which leads to a landscaped roof terrace with rooftop views over the neighborhood. This multi-purpose room is used primarily for gatherings after services, with secondary uses as a lecture room for 275 with full AV capability, and as a banquet hall for 230 to accommodate weddings. A full commercial kitchen is adjacent to this space. The room is also used as an exhibition gallery with special lighting.

The historic quality of the finishes is continued into the fellowship hall, with polished concrete floors, milled-steel panels, and large areas of a monolithic acoustical treatment in the ceiling that are lit separately. The room is enlivened with a subtle color change on one accent wall, and with a large-scale geometrical pattern in the curtain that covers the entire south wall.

Adaptive Re-Use of Garage

Part of the attraction of this site for the church was that the old garage was overbuilt under the current zoning resolution. That space could be captured if 25 percent of the original building floor area was incorporated into the new building. In addition it was the footprint of the existing building that allowed for a volume large enough for a sanctuary with the required seats to fit into the site. It was therefore necessary to keep both the existing shell and two floors of the garage, while a new building was built within. The first issue to resolve was which floors were to be retained?

For ease of access the main worship space in most religious buildings is typically at or near ground level. In this case this arrangement was precluded by another zoning rule: a 23-foot height limit on obstructions in rear yards. The sanctuary with a height of about 36 feet therefore had to be depressed below ground level. The first and second levels of the old building were therefore demolished, and the third and fourth floors retained. These floors are used as classrooms because of the relatively low floor-to-floor heights. Three rows of old columns had to be removed to provide column-free spaces for the sanctuary and classrooms.

The key to the building construction method was an elaborate shoring procedure that involved 50 different operations. In order to keep the perimeter walls in place, a top-down sequence was used, and in a reversal of typical construction sequencing: excavation for the sub-cellar followed steel erection. First, five-story-tall steel super-columns were erected on mini-caissons, followed by new girders woven into the existing floor framing, in a time-consuming shore-cut-and-reconnect procedure at each of the old columns that were removed. Both the new and existing floors and roof framing were used to brace the perimeter walls.

At the lowest level, a ring made of the existing floor framing and the outermost columns was retained at the first and cellar floors, with a hole in the middle to accommodate the excavation below. With the sub-cellar foundation walls and slabs in place, the demolition of the doughnut was the final step in the shoring procedures and general construction could then begin.

New Plans

The success of the new building in fulfilling the aims of the congregation is highlighted in a recent newsletter from the pastor, who wrote:
“Putting down physical roots in a neighborhood is essential to reach rooted New Yorkers and serve the common good. We have seen how incredible the difference has been for the West Side since opening W83. The building is an asset to the neighborhood; used by schools, community board meetings, film crews, support groups, performing arts, and much more. It greatly enhances the creation of community and friendships among members of the congregation. And we have found it makes us visible and able to reach many New Yorkers with the gospel that were previously inaccessible.”

With the experience of creating its first home, the Redeemer Presbyterian Church is now looking to build again in Manhattan.

Architect Timothy Eckersley is senior associate at Gertler & Wente Architects ( in New York, New York.