The West Park Presbyterian Church building on the corner of 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue has been an active house of worship and a home for artists and activists since it was completed in 1890. Originally called the Park Presbyterian Church, the congregation merged with the West Presbyterian Church in 1911, creating the name by which it is still known today. The building, which “is considered to be one of the best examples of a Romanesque Revival style religious structure in New York City” according to the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission, was designed by prominent architects Leopold Eidlitz and Henry Kilburn. The exterior facade of the building was designated a New York City Landmark on January 12, 2010. You can learn more about the architecture of the building and the early history of the church in the Landmark Preservation Report.
West Park’s history of activism and involvement in civil rights issues dates back to before the construction of the building itself. According to church lore, West Presbyterian was a stop on the Underground Railroad when it was based in the Greenwich village (then also known as the Carmine Street Church). In the 1880’s, Park Presbyterian’s socially progressive pastor, Anson Phelps Atterbury, promoted ethnic inclusion and invited Chinese immigrants to worship at the church in spite of widespread anti-Chinese racism. From the 1960’s through the 1980’s, West Park was on the vanguard of gay rights, civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, and anti-nuclear proliferation protests. West Park’s congregation took a leading role in the 1970’s “More Light” movement within the national Presbyterian community, advocating for full acceptance of gay and lesbian congregants, and the church’s basement was the first commercial kitchen for God’s Love We Deliver, earning West Park the moniker, “The Religious Stonewall.” Activism continued even when the congregation fell on hard times. When the building fell into disrepair and the congregation held services down the street at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, protesters from Occupy Wall Street were sheltered in West Park’s old Church House and the congregation continued to hold an annual benefit for the homeless.
As well as an architectural treasure and focal point of many social movements, the soaring red sandstone edifice on 86th Street has been a landmark for New York City’s performing arts community. Rumor has it that Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival held some early rehearsals at West Park before evolving into the beloved Shakespeare in the Park, and Papp returned in 1980 when the Riverside Shakespeare Company opened its new theater, The Shakespeare Center, in the Balcony of West Park’s Sanctuary with the support of then-pastor Robert Davidson. The stage was constructed from materials salvaged from the demolition of the Helen Hayes Theater and the set of the recently closed Broadway production of Nicholas Nickleby, and Papp and Hayes presided over the official opening ceremony. From 1980 to 1985, The Shakespeare Center was the city’s first and only year-round theater dedicated to the performance of Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and Commedia dell’Arte. In 1983, Riverside hosted The Shakespeare Project, the city’s first major residency of British actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company.
After Riverside Shakespeare’s departure in 1986, West Park continued to house numerous theater, dance, and musical performances. In 2011, Woodshed Collective transformed the building’s water-damaged interior for their critically-acclaimed immersive and site-specific adaptation of the novel and film The Tenant. In 2015, West Park welcomed the offices and rehearsal studios of two world-renowned dance companies, Noche Flamenca and Shen Wei Dance Arts, and the Sanctuary was re-imagined as the Sanctuary Theater for Noche Flamenca’s production of Antigona.