Section: CAPITAL REGION Page: B1 Date: Friday, June 6, 2003
COURAGE RECLAIMED ST. JOSEPH'SFRED LeBRUN
St. Joseph's Church is redeemed, and pretty much in the nick of time.
Title to this troubled signature piece of Albany's past was transferred Thursday from the city to the Historic Albany Foundation in a brief ceremony in tiny, adjacent St. Joseph's park, witnessed by resident peonies in full bloom and a number of smiling well-wishers. It was a rare moment to feel good about the future of this important but deteriorated 19th-century church that looms over Arbor Hill's Ten Broeck Triangle. The city has brought honor to itself by plunging in to save St. Joseph's. For the sake of our storied past, and to avert a grand embarrassment, it was a no-brainer. But the open-ended financial commitment for a cash-strapped city took stout hearts and not a little blind faith. Earlier this year, the courts awarded the church to the city through eminent domain. That decision was contested every inch of the way -- and still is -- by its former owner, restaurateur Elda Abate, who bought it from the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese for $1 but did next to nothing to reverse its deterioration.
Her attorney, Randall Kehoe, says that issue is still before the appellate court. Also unresolved is the issue of remuneration for taking the building. The city has offered $1, based on what it deems a negative value. Elda rejected the offer. The courts will likely have to settle that, too. What is surprising is that not a peep was heard from the public about exercising eminent domain. Normally, that would raise somebody's hackles on principle, beyond just the owner of the building. I believe that's because we generally agreed the city was acting properly, as much out of concern for the safety of those walking below the giant spires less secure than they once were, as for the historical value of the 1860 building. As Mayor Jerry Jennings noted during the title transfer, the city got involved legally after expert structural engineer Russ Reeves declared St. Joseph's in a ``dynamic state of failure.'' It was fish or cut bait time. The Preservation League of New York State named St. Joseph's to its ``Seven to Save'' list of the state's most endangered, significant, historic places. The city committed first, pouring in $300,000. With a matching grant from Bernadette Castro's state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, stabilization of the intricate stone structure is no longer a dim hope but increasingly a proper expectation. Although much, much more money will be needed. Yet an optimism, an assurance, exist now that Historic Albany Foundation has taken over. A corner has been turned. This extraordinary house of worship, built lavishly in its day and the symbol of hope for tomorrow for generations of immigrant Italians and Irish, will survive. The past will be our future, and that's the way it should be. Although probably not as a church, even though its pipe organ will be inspected and analyzed for preservation, as will its peel of world-famed Meneeley bells.
As Parks and Recreation Commissioner Castro emphasized during the title transfer, what's next is deciding on ``good adaptive reuse,'' the proper reinvention of St. Joseph's. But first, making it safe and restoring the basic structure will occupy the attention of a committee headed by perennial Albany benefactor Matthew Bender. Bender says there will be at least three public forums on St. Joseph's fate at the city's Public Safety Building on Henry Johnson Boulevard over the next couple of months. ``I want the word to get out, and I want to hear what people think we should do,'' Bender says. We've come a long way in a short time from watching the tiles fall off the roof of St. Joseph's and holding our breaths as we walk by. Mayor Jerry Jennings made that happen. Good for him, and great for us. Contact Fred LeBrun at 454-5453.