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Queens Chronicle

Possible Human Remains Reignite Church Debate

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Posted: Thursday, February 15, 2007 12:00 am

A civic group fighting to preserve a historic church claimed Monday that it had found archaeological evidence suggesting that the city erred in denying landmark status to the property. But city officials said the findings have no bearing on their decision.

According to documents obtained by private consultant Linda Stone, the land surrounding St. Savior’s Church in Maspeth may have served as a 19th century burial ground. The findings are based on an analysis by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which concluded in the mid 1990s that the possible presence of human remains gave the 1.5 acre site major “archaeological potential.”

Members of the Juniper Park Civic Association said this “potential” should be more than enough to merit a landmarking designation for the 159 year old property. If landmarked, the entire site would be protected from a highly controversial plan to build at least 70 units of housing on the property.

In an effort to block future development, the civic group filed a request with the commission last February to preserve the property as “a cultural landscape,” according to historian Christina Wilkinson. The group filed two additional requests last year, but the commission rejected each of them, ruling that the church building was ineligible because of damage to the exterior suffered during a pre Christmas fire in 1970.

When asked whether the property’s archaeological value had ever been considered in its deliberations over landmark status, Elisabeth de Bourbon, a commission spokeswoman, said the city’s conclusion that the site may contain burial artifacts was not a factor. “When we (the commission) decide whether to designate a building for landmarks, we examine the architectural merits,” she said. “This (archaeological) finding did not alter the agency’s determination that the site does not meet our criteria.”

Despite the commission’s rejections, civic members believe both the church and the surrounding land are still rife with historical value to the community. As further evidence of these merits, Wilkinson cited a 19th century photograph, which she recently obtained from a former parishioner, showing tennis players gathered outside the church with a man she believes to be former pastor Father Frederick Griffin. “This photo shows all that this property once was, and the potential it has to be a crown jewel of Maspeth once again,” she said.

Civic members are lobbying the Mayor’s Office to purchase the property and convert the church into a community center and museum. They have gathered more than 1,000 signatures in an online petition to turn the property into a city park. Real estate developer Maspeth Development LLC, which bought the property in October 2005, is currently seeking a change to the city’s zoning map that will allow for construction of multifamily housing on the church property.

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