Public Officials and Historians Call for Landmarking of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church
By Village View Staff
Village Preservation has been leading an effort to save and seek landmark designation for the original Our Lady of Guadalupe Church at 229-31 West 14th Street, which the NY Archdiocese relegated for sale earlier this year. They’ve been joined in that effort by a broad array of elected officials, scholars of Hispanic and Latino history and culture, and preservation and neighborhood organizations. Guadalupe was the city’s very first church for a Spanish-speaking congregation, founded in 1902 when Spanish speakers were a tiny percentage of our city’s population. New Yorkers of Hispanic/Latino origin now account for 30% of our city’s population. In spite of that, barely a handful of our city’s nearly 40,000 landmarked properties represent or were designated for their connection to Hispanic/Latino history.
Yet, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) recently sent a troubling letter dismissing the significance of the building and its history, saying they would not recommend the site be heard by the eleven Commissioners for consideration for landmark designation. This was based upon entirely specious and flimsy arguments.
In response, a broad array of elected officials and historians sent a letter to the LPC on September 18 which we quote, in part, below.
“The undersigned elected officials, scholars of Hispanic history and culture, and representatives of Manhattan Community Board 4, preservation organizations, and neighborhood groups, are collectively disappointed by the response from the LPC regarding the request to evaluate the merits of the presently-endangered church as a potential individual landmark. In the aforementioned response letter, LPC failed to recognize the significance of the church and the congregation it served for a century.
“In 1902, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church was founded at 229-231 West 14th Street, out of two 1850 single family brownstone-clad houses that were built as stately homes at a time when 14th Street was one of the most prestigious addresses in New York. By the late 1800s, the street had lost much of its prestige in favor of locations further uptown, yet these grand buildings remained, under the ownership of the Delmonico family. They were then combined to serve a need: the creation of a permanent church for a thriving population. The site has been at the center of Spanish and Latin American heritage for decades, and bears enormous significance as New York City’s very first Spanish language church or church for a Spanish-speaking congregation.
“…Our Lady of Guadalupe Church was a cornerstone of a growing community, which had started out years prior as a modest group of Spanish Catholics who settled in the area surrounding West 14th Street. The community, at the time primarily comprising immigrants from Galicia, would come to be known as “Little Spain.”
“LPC’s response too easily dismisses the magnitude, size, and lasting heritage of the Little Spain and Latin American community historically associated with this church, by merely stating that “a small Spanish (Iberian) community was established in the West Village south of West 14th Street in the late-19th century and was in decline by the 1920s and 1930s as the community moved uptown.” On the contrary, at its height, the enclave known as “Little Spain” extended from approximately Christopher Street to 23rd Street on the west side, with 14th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues as its core, and was home to thousands of immigrants and dozens of Spanish-owned businesses, social clubs, and religious and community centers. At its peak, Little Spain was the largest Spanish-American community in New York City. It also served as a nexus for Puerto Ricans and Latin American immigrants when other such centers did not exist, and even after they did.
“The church actually expanded in 1917 to include the second row house on 14th Street, and in 1921 the grand Spanish Colonial Baroque façade was added to both structures as we see today. Though the solely Spanish population began to diminish in the 1930s, by then other Spanish-speaking communities had come to call this neighborhood home.
“Our Lady of Guadalupe Church continued to serve Spanish-speaking parishioners until as recently as the early 2000s, when the significant influx of Mexican immigrants to New York City, starting in the 1990s, began to overextend the capacity of the small chapel that the combining of the two brownstones had facilitated. In 2002, the parish relocated just a few hundred feet west to St. Bernard’s Church, located on 14th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. Demand was so high that Mass was sometimes broadcast over loudspeakers to reach a broader audience spilling onto the sidewalk.
“LPC further indicated that “the [church] building has since been altered with the removal of historic window and door details, facade resurfacing, and changes to window openings, roofs, and parapets.” Indeed, it has, but such minor alterations are typically not considered barriers to designation. Many features of the two original upscale brownstone row houses remain, as does the 1921 facade designed by a famed architect, which reflects the development of the building into its longstanding use as a religious institution.
“Our Lady of Guadalupe Church was not purpose-built, but rather crafted by altering existing infrastructure, and the present building tells that story. Places of worship are often among the first dedicated, shared spaces established in a neighborhood, and the physical form is borne of necessity. That is exactly what is memorialized here: a church building that evolved in tandem with a developing community, which was then made more “grand” with its Spanish Colonial Baroque facade when resources permitted.
“While constituting approximately 30% of NYC’s population, sites designated for their connection to Latino/a, Latinx, and Hispanic peoples and their history and culture account for well under 1% of designated individual landmarks. It would appear the LPC does not have the luxury of dismissing Our Lady of Guadalupe Church as lacking in requisite significance to Latino/a, Latinx, and Hispanic history and heritage when there is such a deficit of other sites that have been recognized, and when so many experts in the field strongly disagree. Our Lady of Guadalupe Church tells the specific story of “Little Spain” and its Spanish and Latin American immigration history, a critical piece of our heritage that may soon be lost to time if the Landmarks Preservation Commission does not act.”
The letter was signed by Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, Assembly member Tony Simone, Assembly Member Deborah Glick, The Community Board 4 Chair, Jay DiLorenzo President, Preservation League of New York State, Frampton Tolbert, Executive Director, Historic Districts Council, Peg Breen, President, The New York Landmarks Conservancy, and many others.
Important note: Only the eleven LPC Commissioners can decide which buildings become NYC landmarks, so the letter received by Village Preservation does not represent a final decision or official determination. Outrageously, however, it does reflect that the Chair of the Commission, who is appointed by and represents the mayor, currently does not believe that this history is worth recognizing or preserving. We cannot allow this perspective to stand! Contact villagepreservation.org to find out how you can help.