Theses Master's

Architectural Palimpsest: A New Design for St. Martin’s Episcopal Church

Gervasi, Nicholas

Historic churches in New York City are endangered. Often in development zones primed for higher density, these grand and highly articulated buildings are succumbing to demolition or inappropriate alteration. Furthermore, their vulnerability is also due to dwindling congregations and deteriorated state. These difficulties can be compounded by their landmark status, as the case with the chosen thesis site of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church at the northeast corner of Lenox Avenue and 122nd Street in Harlem. As opposed to static repositories of culture or aesthetic style, this thesis envisions landmarks as the site for urban experimentation and evolution.

As a design concentration thesis, this project will propose an adaptive use and architectural intervention to the church complex in order to enable its preservation. The new programming will retain the existing reduced congregation and will add a civil rights institute with market-rate housing. Although at initial glance its landmark status and location in a Historic District may appear to be design constraints, this thesis will argue that landmarks are generators of culture that must continue to be edited to reflect the changes required of such an active force in the built environment. Thus, the historical and architectural significance of the existing building will become productive drivers of design, not inhibitors.

Prioritizing the various levels of significance, selective demolition and calculated addition will guide the project to ensure the integrity of the building is not lost. As an exercise, this thesis will test how removed pieces can inform new architecture. As a composite object, with two post-fire restorations leading to heavily altered fabric from the original 1888 William Appleton Potter design, the building represents a narrative of a fractured object, reconstituted over time. Factoring in market forces, the project consists of a substantial square footage addendum in order to achieve the maximum build out as allocated by the zoning resolution.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Historic Preservation
Thesis Advisors
Freeman Jr., Robert Belmont
M.S., Columbia University
Published Here
June 24, 2016