Section: CAPITAL REGION Page: B1 Date: Friday, February 1, 2002
A STORY THAT NEEDS A GOOD ENDINGFRED LeBRUN
When we last wrote about Albany's once grand but neglected St. Joseph's Church in Arbor Hill, the plot line seemed right out of a pulp paperback. Jack Nielsen, the city's public safety commissioner, had signed an emergency order shutting down the building as a threat to public safety. An order based largely on a structural engineer's alarming report that an interior stone column in the 142-year-old cathedral-style structure that dominates the Arbor Hill skyline was on the move. In a ``dynamic mode of failure'' from years of water damage and lack of attention. The engineer, Russ Reeves of Troy, was hired by the owners of the building, Elda and Mario Abate, to attest to the building's safety. The Abates had purchased the decrepit church from the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese expressly to create a restaurant-nightclub, much to the chagrin of the partially gentrified neighborhood. Citing his professional responsibility, Reeves instead informed the city's building department of quite the opposite, that St. Joseph's was in imminent danger of collapse.
Which prompted Elda Abate to challenge Nielsen's order by suing the city in state Supreme Court. The city in turn sued the Abates in City Court for alleged code violations. The city also called in a scaffolding company to start stabilizing the building as quickly as possible, under Reeves' direction. Whew. That doesn't even include the hasty formation of a blue-ribbon committee of preservationists, engineers, architects and others to oversee the future of St. Joseph's, or the diocese's quiet but unsuccessful attempt to quell its growing embarrassment by talking the Abates into giving back the church. Or the years of howling in the wind by concerned citizens like John Wolcott over the need for the diocese and the city to save this precious historic landmark. Hello. It's a month later, and the plot continues to unfold with just as many tentacles. In order of importance: Pray for this once glorious church with its intricate stained glass remarkably intact and larger than life-sized carved oak figures which are nothing short of wondrous. It's in danger of dying. The scaffolding is up for the roof repairs needed first. Now the operation shifts to the super delicate work of stabilizing the four main arches. We must be prepared, Reeves says carefully, for the distinct possibility the deterioration has gone too far, that the building can't be saved. From what we can see, it does appear the rescue is happening in time. But this will be a book of revelations, stresses the engineer. While hammer beams have been around in Gothic-style churches for more than 800 years, how loads shift throughout the intricate design when things start to fall apart is revealed one layer at a time, even for modern engineers experienced in all this. The next month is critical in determining if St. Joseph's should stand.
Without prejudging what state Supreme Court Justice Thomas Keegan and City Court Judge Cheryl Coleman have before them, the probability is that city will soon be legally free to foreclose on or condemn the building, or bargain for it. Randall Kehoe, the Abates' attorney, believes the building is worth ``in the several millions,`` and says he's been granted the exclusive right to put the church up for sale. ``Which we will do so aggressively,'' he said. Gulp. Is this for real, or is a negotiating ploy yet to be revealed, just like the stresses in the church. Now we're talking money, big money, for purchase, for restoration, for an endowment. Ah, but money from where? Which, if the building can be saved, will surely take us through the next several chapters of ``Saving St. Joseph's.'' Contact Fred LeBrun at 454-5453.