Northampton’s First Churches may sell valuable Tiffany window; Historical Commission, city CPA funds complicate sale



Last modified: Friday, March 21, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — The venerable First Churches of Northampton is preparing to sell a colorful — and valuable — Tiffany stained-glass window that has been part of the church since the late 1870s, as part of an effort to pay off its mortgage and ensure the church carries out its mission for years to come.

The congregation at the landmark church at the corner of Main and Center streets recently approved selling the window, pending permission from the state Historical Commission. The church recently took out an $800,000 loan to cover a shortfall from a five-year, $2.2 million capital campaign to fix the church after a 2007 roof collapse.

“Selling the window ensures the future of the church for the next generation,” Pastor Todd Weir said.

The church has an offer of $750,000 for the window, though one local architect believes its value is far greater — possibly over $1 million.

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“By getting rid of this debt, we feel very confident that we can move forward for a generation and be a vital congregation and meet the needs of this building,” Weir said.

The decision to sell the window, located in the sanctuary along Center Street, is being questioned by a Northampton architect who specializes in preservation of historic buildings, and by others who believe church officials are being shortsighted in their decision.

“That window is an important part of the history of Northampton,” said Tristram Metcalfe, of Metcalfe Associates Architecture.

Metcalfe said he recognizes the church needs revenue, but he believes it’s counterproductive to think a church can sustain its future by selling off pieces of its building and other artifacts.

Plus, he said, the building has a state preservation restriction in place that prohibits the church from selling the window without permission from the state Historical Commission. The church was granted the restriction in late 2008, which enabled it to accept $70,000 from the state as part of its capital campaign. The restriction was also a stipulation for the church to receive a $250,000 Community Preservation Act grant from the city that went toward a new roof.

“That window is an icon that needs to be preserved with the history of Northampton, especially if the public helped to restore the church,” Metcalfe said.

There’s not much the city can do to prevent the window from being sold, though the Community Preservation Committee would likely frown on such a sale given that the CPA grant was awarded under a historic classification, said Sarah LaValley, conservation, preservation and land use planner for the city. The committee would also weigh the window’s sale heavily should the church apply for future CPA grants, she said.

The church hasn’t decided what would replace the Tiffany window, but it is considering a less valuable stained glass window similar to others in the sanctuary.

Williamsburg resident Peter Klejna has also raised concerns in recent days about “this beautiful artifact, this integral portion of the church” leaving Northampton. While he said he is glad the church put background materials on its website for all to see, he’s concerned that these documents do not mention discussion about the preservation restriction and wonders whether the church will put the window up for worldwide sale if it does decide to part with it.

“The public does have an interest in that window because public funds were used,” Klejna said. “I would like to see a transparent public dialogue about the church’s sale of the window.”

Church decision

Weir said the church is being transparent in its process. He acknowledges the beauty of the Tiffany window and does not want to be in a position to sell it.

That’s why many of the church’s 200 members have been engaging in discussions about the window’s fate for at least the last year. Most agree that selling the window is the best way to ensure the church can continue to maintain its signature 129 Main St. building without having to close in the future. In a formal vote held last month, 56 of the 68 people who cast ballots chose to sell the window, seven wanted to see it restored and kept, and five abstained.

“This is tough to swallow for people, giving it up,” Weir said. “It took some time for us to get to the point where we believe the greater good is served for us and the community if we could sell it and get out from under the capital debt.”

Weir confirmed that the church’s preservation restriction from the state prohibits any major alteration to the physical shell of the building. Removing such a large stained glass window would qualify as a major project. The church has had informal discussions with the state Historical Commission and is in the process of writing a formal request for permission to sell the window.

While the church is able to make the monthly payments on the $750,000 remaining on its mortgage, Weir notes that it is dipping into an endowment to do so. Plus, the building needs constant money for other capital improvement projects. He said the church would struggle to pay to fix any unexpected building problems that might crop up in the future unless it pays down the mortgage. Proceeds from selling the window would allow the church to accomplish that quickly, he said.

“What we’re concerned about is we have a 30-year mortgage paying off the last capital campaign, so what happens in 10 years if the steeple has a problem or if other capital projects come up,” Weir said. “For these downtown urban churches, it’s not the operating budget that’s the problem. It’s really how do we fund the capital expenses because the scale is so large.”

Churches of all denominations have been hit hard in recent years by the recession and by declining donations and attendance. A couple of years ago, the First Baptist Church in Brattleboro, Vt., made a similar decision to sell a Tiffany original of St. John the Divine for $85,000 — money that it used to sustain the church and a wintertime homeless shelter it runs.

While members of First Churches visited that Vermont church as part of their research, Weir said his church is not on the brink of closure. He also notes that its Tiffany window is much larger and more valuable than the one in Vermont.

The roughly 18-foot tall “River of Life” window is unique in that it does not have explicit religious symbolism, which makes it more valuable. The window was donated by the Parsons family in the late 1870s after the church was rebuilt following a fire.

Weir said the church has a standing offer from a Chicago museum to buy the window for $750,000, a deal that would be brokered by a New York state company that specializes in church artifacts and silver. The church has yet to decide whether it would take that offer or put the window up for sale to a wider audience. Either way, Weir said there was a “very strong voice” from the congregation to make sure the window goes to a buyer who will publicly display the piece.

Should First Churches sell the window for that price, officials estimate it would net between $525,000 and $550,000 after the expense of removing the Tiffany and buying and installing a new one. The church could pay off its mortgage by using that money and another chunk of funds from its endowment.

While he doesn’t want the window to leave Northampton, architect Metcalfe said this particular Tiffany is likely worth way more than $750,000 based on his research.

“Its value in my book is way higher than they are being offered,” Metcalfe said.

Alternative idea

Given the church’s financial predicament, Metcalfe is floating a plan to have the church keep the window but make it the focus of a new fundraising campaign to raise both money and awareness about how important the church building is to the community. He proposes spotlighting the window, literally, by lighting it up from the inside at night, for example.

“They have this great asset and we want to preserve it. This type of campaign could help the church maintain that building,” Metcalfe said. “There’s got to be a symbolic win-win scenario here.”

Weir said the mission of the church is to be a compassionate place for people, and its structure is considered a community space not unlike the New England meeting houses of old. In addition to programs that support the homeless and other needs in the community, space in the church is used by 30 different groups, including 12-step and other advocacy outreach groups.

While the congregation likes to have an aesthetically pleasing sanctuary, Weir notes that the church is not a museum.




 


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