MHANY and Friends Celebrate 1921 Cortelyou Road

By Kimberly Murphy, AIA, Partner

This week, ESKW/Architects was honored to attend long-time client MHANY Management’s annual benefit in support of their mission of developing affordable housing for low- and moderate-income New York families. This year, MHANY’s event celebrated the innovative development partnership at 1921 Cortelyou Road. In addition to the wonderful company, there was great music, bowling, and plenty of tasty food.

While speaking to the collected group, Executive Director Ismene Speliotis explained that while every development has its own interesting story, 1921 Cortelyou Road’s is especially remarkable. She invited some of the key players to share a bit of our own stories related to the project. The mini speeches were beautiful, and they inspired us as the architects to share a bit more here.

ESKW/A’s introduction to the Baptist Church of the Redeemer at 1921 Cortelyou Road was through a limited design competition in 2008. Our scheme was selected as the winning design (see below right), and our team was poised to bring a new church combined with affordable and supportive housing into reality. At the event this week, Reverend Sharon Williams shared her perspective from 2008: “A vision without action is an illusion.” Unfortunately, the development team at the time was unable to take solid action so the project paused.

So let’s back up. The phenomenon at work is this: Many churches around the city, and specifically Brooklyn (the “borough of churches”), own properties that need significant repair and maintenance. As congregations age, care of the facilities becomes challenging. With the real estate market being as competitive as it is in NYC, developers look for creative opportunities to purchase or partner with individuals or organizations such as churches that can benefit from a development team’s expertise. The concern in this scenario is to protect the church organization from predatory development. Enter non-profit organizations such as LISC NYC who assist in pairing developers, property owners, and attorneys who help protect the interests of the churches.

In the case of 1921 Cortelyou Road, the Baptist Church of the Redeemer needed a match. After making a connection with the Church through the success of the design competition, ESKW/A Partner Andrew Knox went to work to help find that match. He found it in Ismene and MHANY Management along with Brooklyn Community Services and Turning Point Brooklyn. The shared goals and personal chemistry among the groups and the Reverend was exactly what was needed to jump-start the project.

To say “the rest is history” is a bit simplistic for any development, but overly true for this project. MHANY and their team along with ESKW/A set out to do something special in the mixed use of residential and church uses. The intention was always for a successful partnership between the two and that each could support the other. The Church has a long history of community support and inter-faith advocacy, and they run a weekly soup kitchen program. When the Reverend learned more about the missions of Turning Point and Brooklyn Community Services and that theirs is the only NYC program dedicated to housing homeless young women between the ages of 18-24, she wanted to support even further. Out of her portion of the development funds, she decided to dedicate church space for Turning Point Brooklyn’s “We Care About You” Shower Program for the homeless. March is also Women’s History Month and this project was unusual for typical development in that a majority of the team members and leaders are women. Rev. Williams gathered them all for a photo at the groundbreaking.

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The project story is also one of preservation and history. The existing 1920s neo-Romanesque church building had been unused for many years. Its handsome exterior was past the point of repair; however, many interior elements were intact and could be salvaged for reuse.

The architectural team identified items, reviewed the proposal with the church, and documented pieces for careful salvage by Mega Contracting Group, the general contractor, and their demolition team. Pews were photographed, measured, and cataloged. Stained glass panels were documented, and designs prepared for new interior display. Hymn boards and other easily movable items were prepared for secure storage and reuse. To everyone’s great lamentation, it was not feasible to save everything; the brass pipe organ and 24-inch diameter, 30-foot tall granite columns couldn’t be salvaged.

The design process for the Baptist Church was immersive, pun intended. Architects attended Rev. Williams’ service and spent time learning about their full-immersion baptism ceremony, which is central to their doctrine. Understanding the procession of the service, and the needs for changing rooms and accommodations for all ages who come to be baptized, the architects sculpted the sanctuary accordingly. Sky lights and curved ceiling planes make the new sanctuary welcoming, calm, and modern, allowing the service to be the feature. Physical and virtual models were studied to ensure that daylight washed the sanctuary as intended.

The approximately 15,000 square feet of church space is separate from the housing with only utility service spaces being shared. The 76 housing units are an integrated mix of senior housing, affordable housing, and supportive housing with common spaces for programs and resident use including a community room, an activity room, laundry, and two rooftop terraces. The units are studio, one-, and two-bedroom units each with solid wood floors, solid wood kitchen millwork, and large windows.

The groundbreaking ceremony was held on October 30, 2018, and currently the project is under construction. The existing church has been demolished, the site has been excavated, and new foundations are in place. Early this spring, first floor planks will be set, and soon the corner of Ocean Avenue and Cortelyou Road will come to life as the nine-story building takes shape. And you can bet on the ribbon-cutting ceremony being one that shouldn’t be missed!

We’re excited to share more of the background and progress of this remarkable project, so stay tuned. Congratulations to MHANY Management for bringing us all together and making sure that this beautiful vision didn’t become an illusion.

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