NEW YORK - For almost a century Grace Congregational Church on 139th Street in Harlem has been a center for worship and community.
"It’s the warmth of this church. Total strangers come here and they feel like home," says Barbara Fennell, who has been a congregant for 30 years.
"It has a history of music. All of the people that used to stop by, Hall Johnson. Duke Ellington used to live around the corner. So this was known as the Little House of Opera," says Reverend Nigel Pearce who has been the pastor at Grace Congregational Church for 15 years.
Over the years the church has fallen in disrepair. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy destroyed the building. Mold and mildew can be found on the inside, and paint is peeling off the wall. Churchgoers say they worry someone can get hurt due to the deteriorating conditions.
Revered Pearce and his parishioners have dreamed of a new vision for the church, one that includes demolition and rebuilding.
"We were going to put 42 affordable housing as well as 2 floors for the church for community space. We know economically churches don’t work today as they used to so the income that we were looking for from the affordable housing would carry our mission and work," says Reverend Nigel.
Reverend Nigel says rebuilding has been in the works for 7 years, and the church has already invested $1 million dollars in pre-development, but this year the plan hit a roadblock.
The area where the church sits was deemed a new historic district created by NYC’s Landmarks Preservation Commission after neighbors called on celebrating and preserving black history. The historic district has been named the Dorrance Brooks Square Historic District, the first city district of its kind named after an African-American.
Dr. Keith Taylor, the President of the Dorrance Brooks Property Owners & Residents Association Historic District, says "Our neighborhood is 130 years old so when you introduce a new structure by tearing down an irreplaceable artifact it is difficult to absorb the loss."
In order to tear down and redevelop the building, church leaders must get approval from the city’s Landmarks Commission.
Pastor Pearce says he’s open to looking at other options, but also ensuring that the church can financially survive.