Yonkers DENIED Messiah Baptist Church Landmark Application By Kisha Skipper

Date:

When Yonkers Denied, the National and State Registers Obliged

Honoring History

On Tuesday, May 28, 2024,Pastor Frank E. Coleman, Jr., the Ministerial Staff, Official Board and Members of the Messiah Baptist Church, along with a special committee organized and led by Rev. Margaret Fountain-Coleman hosted a service commemorating the church being added to the National Register of Historic Places.  The service included the unveiling of the marker that will be placed indicating the church located at 76 Warburton Avenue, Yonkers, New York has placed on the register by the United States Department of the Interior. 

The recommendation for inclusion on both the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places by the New York State Board for Historic Preservation was made possible by the collective efforts of Mr. Jesse Kling an associate with HIGGINS QUASEBARTH & PARTNERS and Mr. Harold McKoy, a member of the church with the support of New York State Assembly Member Nader Sayegh. The church was also awarded funding from The New York Landmarks Conservancy to restore the dilapidating structure that was erected in 1888 as the Westminster Presbyterian Church and later acquired by Messiah Baptist Church in 1964. Pastor Coleman led the celebration which included musical selections by saxophonist Mr. Bryant Jackson and Rev. Coleman, himself. There were remarks from the honorees, as well as U.S. Congressman Jamaal Bowman, Mayor Mike Spano and representatives from the offices of various elected officials including our New York State delegates who were unable to attend.

Sharpton’s Sermon

The guest speaker for the evening is the founder and president of the National Action Network (NAN) who anchors Politics Nation on MSNBC, hosts two nationally syndicated radio shows Keepin’ It Real and The Hour of Power and is well known for speaking out on behalf of those who have been “silenced and marginalized”, Rev. Al Sharpton.   Sharpton delivered an impactful message from the 5th chapter of the book of Romans, with a subject entitled “Justified by Faith”.  He reminded those in attendance that 59 years ago to the day, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered greetings to civil rights leaders who attended the 5th Annual Convention of the Negro American Labor Council held at the church on May 28, 1965.  Sharpton also shared another historical moment detailing his personal history with Messiah.  He was scheduled to preach a sermon at the church on Sunday, January 13, 1991, when tragically he was stabbed the day before in a park in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn while organizing a protest.  He expressed the importance of returning to the “old landmarks” referencing the lyrics to the traditional gospel song and added anecdotes depicting how “landmarks” are necessary to assist in navigating through challenging times.

Photo Credit: Donna Davis

Landmarking and Legacy

The National Register of Historic Places and local historic landmarks are two different programs that both recognize and protect historic properties.  The National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) is the official list of all districts, sites, buildings, structures and objects that the federal government deems worthy of preservation for their historical significance or “great artistic value”.  The New York State Register is the official list of historic sites in the state. Local landmarking is where the enforcement in the change of use is what is needed for the preservation of an actual structure.  For example, Yonkers City Hall was said to have been constructed between 1907 and 1910. There was additional construction to the structure in 1948, however the building was not designated a registered landmark until June 1, 1972.  One year later, a nomination was made for Yonkers City Hall to be included to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Register of Historic Places, on August 8, 1973. On February 6, 1981, the building was added to the New York State Division of Historic Places. The city has a Landmarks Preservation Board with a mission that works to “protect and preserve Yonkers’ cultural, historical, and architectural resources”.  The Landmarks Preservation Board adopted Historic Design Guidelines in 2005 and a June 6, 2008, Executive Order entitled Demolition Delay Ordinance was adopted. This executive order instructs the Department of Housing and Buildings to notify the Landmarks Preservation Board of any demolition application received for any building that is older than 75 years old. Notification does not constitute protection.

Despite the very rich history of the church and proclamation presented by the mayor with an introduction that read “As Mayor of the City of Yonkers, I am pleased to join Messiah Baptist Church on the historic occasion of the 150th Anniversary and as their designation as a historic landmark in our City and State…”.  Messiah Baptist Church’s application for landmarking in the City of Yonkers was denied. 

An article published in Lohud on March 7, 2018, reported that the church submitted a landmarking application on February 21, 2018 to the Yonkers Planning Bureau listing “downtown development as a threat.” Traveling in either direction on Warburton Avenue near the church, it is easy to see why there were concerns about the preservation of the church. There have been developments all around the church but no efforts in assisting with its restoration and preservation by the local government.  The inclusion of the church on the national and state register of historic places does not provide protection from demolition unless there is a project that includes federal funding.  A listing of all properties that are landmarked locally is available by accessing Yonkers Individual Landmarks and Historic Districts Master List 2023 from the city’s website.

Protect and Preserve

The sentiment that was repeated and resonated most was the desire for Messiah Baptist Church to continue to be a “beacon of hope” in the City of Yonkers. The only way to ensure that the church remains for another 150 years and more, is for the city to approve the church’s application for landmarking and join the federal and state governments in recognizing that historical significance of the church and acknowledging its contributions to the very fabric of our great city.

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