Clifton Park church votes to demolish landmark

The Clifton Park Center Baptist Church meetinghouse.

ERIC JENKS/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHERThe Clifton Park Center Baptist Church meetinghouse. ERIC JENKS/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

By Kassie Parisi

Gazette Reporter

CLIFTON PARK — After years of uncertainty surrounding the building’s fate, the Clifton Park Center Baptist Church has decided to tear down its 180-year old meetinghouse.

The structure, though it has fallen into disrepair, is a historic landmark. In 1837, the Clifton Park Baptist congregation was searching for an updated place in which to gather and decided to construct the meetinghouse.

But the brick building, which was used for regular worship, weddings and other ceremonies, has not been used since the early 1990s. The congregation has since built a larger, updated church on the same site.

In 2004, the meetinghouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, despite the fact it was unused and deteriorating.

Unable to keep up with repairs, the congregation voted in June to demolish the structure, a decision that has garnered some attention.

Gregory Staples, one of two pastors at the church on Clifton Park Center Road, explained that finding a way to save or refurbish the meetinghouse has long been discussed by the congregation, but a solution was ultimately impossible, due to a lack of funds. The decision to tear the building down, he said, was a difficult but necessary one.

“It’s a very hard decision. I know with everyone, there was sadness,” said Staples, who has been the co-pastor at the church with his wife since October 2016. “The church has looked for a solution for several years.”

Clifton Park Town Historian John Scherer disagreed. A staunch advocate of restoring and maintaining local landmarks, Scherer explained that when a building is placed on the historic register, though there are no restrictions that bar property owners from demolishing them, there are tax breaks and grants the owners can seek to help maintain the buildings.

“They’ve had every opportunity to do that,” Scherer said.

According to Staples, a committee within the congregation was formed to look into funding to restore the meetinghouse, but all of the grants required the church to match the amount of money being provided, which it could not afford, he said.

“We did look at every angle,” he said. “We just didn’t have funding.”

Scherer said the town has done all it can to help the church find a way to refurbish the structure, including providing the names of organizations that focus specifically on helping religious institutions preserve landmarks.

He called the case of the meetinghouse an unusual one, noting that normally, when buildings are placed the historic register, the intent is usually to refurbish and maintain them, or find new uses for them. But at this point, Scherer doesn’t know what else the town can do.

“This is a real strange situation,” he said. “At this point, we’ve just done everything. We’ve given them every out to preserve this building.”

Scherer noted that another avenue the church could have taken was to sell the building. There was one offer made to restore it — made by town resident Joanne Coons — last year. Coons said that, upon hearing of the possible demolition, she met with the church multiple times, and sometimes with the town’s Historic Preservation Commission, to discuss a possible refurbishing.

Coons felt the building would have been ideal for a small home but added the church never seemed agreeable to any of her ideas and came up with a new objection each time she offered a solution.

“We just never reached terms,” she said.

Staples said the congregation decided not to work with Coons because a sale would leave the church with no say over who would use the building. Also, the church would lose access to a road connecting the church to its cemetery, which is located directly behind the meetinghouse, he said.

The church has not set a demolition date, and Staples was unsure whether the building poses an asbestos hazard. The timber used to build the meetinghouse was recycled from an older building, and the roof was damaged during a snowstorm. There is also no plumbing in the building, and Staples said that when the church attempted to repair a beam that had broken inside, another support beam broke soon after. He estimated it would cost at least $500,000 to make the repairs needed just to stabilize the structure.

But, he added, the congregation is and always has remained cognizant of the meetinghouse’s history. He said that after the building is gone, the church will place something in that location to memorialize it, though he didn’t know as of this week what that memorial would entail.

“It’s been many years that we’ve been trying to figure out what to do,” he said. “It’s not a decision that’s been made lightly.”