Building On a Boneyard? Preservationists Beg Steiner Not To Put Luxury Condos On Former Cemetery Site

Mary Help of Christians Church on Avenue A was built over an old cemetery.

Mary Help of Christians Church on Avenue A was built over an old Catholic cemetery.

The dead may not literally walk among us, but they can certainly cause headaches for developers. In 2006, work on Trump Soho was temporarily halted when human remains were discovered at the construction site, where a Baptist Church once stood. Last year, plans for a development in Queens were nixed after the property—home to a colonial-era cemetery—was landmarked. And back in 1991, the federal government was forced to significantly alter plans for its $276 million federal office tower in Lower Manhattan after uncovering the 17th and 18th-century remains of hundreds of African Americans.

Now, several preservation and community groups are pleading with developer Douglast Steiner to his abandon plans to demolish the Mary Help of Christians Church complex at 181 Avenue A (between East 11th and East 12th streets), because the buildings were built over a former Catholic Cemetery.

Known as the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral cemetery and later as the East 11th Street Cemetery, the area was an active burial yard from the early 19th to the early 20th centuries. In 1909, the Catholic Church decommissioned the graveyard and moved the bodies to Calvary Cemetery in Queens. Or rather, they moved some, but maybe not all the bodies to Queens.

“When they closed the cemetery, it’s unclear if they moved all of the remains,” said Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “News accounts from the time refer to the church moving between 3,000 and 5,000 bodies, while there were some 40,000 bodies buried at the site. It could be that the reports were inaccurate, but…”

Mr. Steiner bought the development site for $41 million last fall and recently filed demolition permits for the church, the school and the rectory with the DOB. The developer is rumored to be planning a residential tower at the site with ground-floor retail. A spokesperson for Mr. Steiner said that renderings from a Ripco Realty listing spotted earlier this month by EV Grieve were not for the project, but rather another address.

Mr. Steiner himself has been rather unforthcoming about the project. Through a spokesperson, he declined to comment on the possibility of human remains at the site.

Of course, if there are remains at the site, the Catholic Church wasn’t very squeamish about disturbing them when it built the church, the rectory and the school. Why should a developer be more fastidious?

Well, besides the fact that the church presumably had a priest and some holy water on hand to soothe any restless spirits, building on a burial yard isn’t as easy as it used to be. Mr. Berman said that if human remains are discovered during construction, work must be stopped until the police and archeologists are called in to identify the remains and determine how work can move forward—a process under the jurisdiction of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The GVSHP and several other community groups are asking Mr. Steiner to avoid the possibility of unearthing any skeletons and to build on the adjacent church yard, which lies outside of the old cemetery border. They rallied Wednesday evening at Mary Help of Christians Church to make their request and to reveal news of the potential conflict with the not-to-so-recently deceased Villagers.

“Aside from the fact that it would be a good thing to do, there’s a huge plot of land that he could build on while preserving a unique and wonderful building and creating a much more unique and valuable development site,” said Mr. Berman. “It’s not like we’re saying, ‘Don’t build.’”

The plea is not an unreasonable one, nor is some kind of adaptive reuse unimaginable—churches have become luxury condos before. But it appears that preservationists and the local community—as evinced by an earlier, failed effort to block Mr. Steiner’s demolition attempt with a landmark designation—are primarily concerned with the historic buildings, which would be saved if Mr. Steiner backed off so as not to dig into a potential boneyard.

“The church buildings are a testament to the Italian immigrant legacy in New York City and remain living monuments,” Sara Romanoski, the Managing Director of the East Village Community Coalition, wrote in a statement. “As a community, we ask the developer to recognize the opportunity for incorporating these architecturally significant buildings into the new development.”