There could not be a more positive sign for the future of New York than the decision by those in charge of this church…to save and restore its building for the benefit of its community…willing to stake a claim for the belief that we do not make a better city by seeing every landmark merely as a piece of developable real estate.
~ Paul Goldberger, The New York Times, 12/29/85
On November 13, 2016, the Fourth Universalist Society “Landmark on the Park” launched a new era in its tenacious history as church members and Upper West Side neighbors officially welcomed Rev. Schuyler Vogel, next-generation leader of this historic New York City institution.
Unless congregants and neighbors had come together 32 years ago, this day might never have come…and a very different building might stand on this desirable site at the corner of West 76th Street and Central Park West.
Faced with a staggering diagnosis of expensive, critically needed repairs to its Landmark building, the Society stood at a crossroads. Should it yield to high-rise development pressure, sure to ignite a community battle, or invest in a community partnership instead? Fortunately for all New Yorkers, the Society chose collaboration. In 1985, it announced:
We, the members, are resolved to save, restore, and preserve [the Landmark church building of the Fourth Universalist Society] always as the distinctive building it now is. However, we lack the funds to do this on our own, and time is running out. […] We have engaged the participation of our neighbors, preservationists, and everyone who has a stake in preserving the community. We are creating a not-for-profit corporation to be known as Save Our Universalist Landmark (S.O.U.L.), the purpose of which will be to raise and manage the funds collected by this cooperative fundraising effort.”
Talented, energetic and resourceful leadership came from the Society’s then-minister Rev. Darrell Berger, Finance Chair Robert Martin (S.O.U.L. President) and Business Manager David Dunlop, with galvanizing support from many neighbors including Judith and Bill Moyers, Joan and Arthur Sarnoff (S.O.U.L. Treasurer) and LANDMARK WEST! founder Arlene Simon (S.O.U.L. Vice President). Half of the S.O.U.L. board members came from the congregation, the other half from the community.
In his chronicle of the S.O.U.L. campaign, Mr. Martin noted that Arlene “offered to help, and did,” acting as catalyst “in the process of building a network of friends, consultants, advisors and supporters, sense of trust and shared purpose.” It was the same instinct and determination that almost simultaneously forged LW! (also founded in 1985).*
In just three years, S.O.U.L. succeeded in raising nearly $600,000 (the equivalent of $1.3 million today)—seeded by $100,000 from the Society’s own endowment, the rest coming primarily from individual donors—to address the most urgent repairs.
To S.O.U.L., we owe not only the survival of Fourth Universalist Society’s Oxford-inspired tower, but also a pivotal model for saving threatened landmarks through cooperation, not conflict.
*Built in 1897, designed by William Stuart Potter, included in the Central Park West-76th Street Historic District (designated by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1973), and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Fourth Universalist Society was the fitting location for the January 12, 1988, public hearing held by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission regarding the proposed Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District, the focus of LW’s first major campaign. The hearing began at 10:30 AM continued for nearly 15 hours before finally adjourning at 1:17 AM on January 13. Also at the Society, in [YEAR], Bill Moyers presented Arlene Simon with the Historic Districts Council’s prestigious Landmarks Lion award, stating “She is the spirit of people who without praise, who without tribute, who without laurels and who without recognition, daily battle for the quality of the civilization that we call this City.”