Like a solitary sentinel, St. Monica's red-brick facade -
all that is left of the once-mighty church building - points heavenward as if
asking God to save it.
It looks as though divine intervention is needed: Since 1998, when a heavy
snowfall caused the main building to collapse right after money was set aside
to study the possibility of a restoration, it literally has been propped up to
stop it from toppling over.
But the building is of sturdy stock. For nearly a century and a half, the
landmark at 160th Street across from the main building of the City University
under it, and commuters on the Long Island Rail Road know that when the former
Roman Catholic church comes into sight, Jamaica station and all connecting
trains are only seconds away.
Now, the historic building is set to undergo not only a renovation but also
a resurrection. The building, now owned by the City University of New York and
the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York, is being converted into a
day-care center for the children of York College students.
"We will keep the facade and maintain its landmark status," said Avis
Hendrickson, vice president of enrollment management and student development at
York College. "Construction will begin in about a year."
The $3-million project is being praised by Queens historians who long have
worried about the fate of St. Monica's. "That poor, poor church," said Stanley
Cogan, president of the Queens Historical Society. "There have been four
landmark structures in Queens - St. Monica's, RKO Keith's in Flushing, the
Terra Cotta Building in Long Island City and the Hammerstein House under the
shadow of the Whitestone Bridge - these four places for too long have been a
shameful disgrace to the good residents of Queens. Now at least one is going to
be restored to its former glory and will once again be a place worth viewing."
The new plans, which are still being drawn and due to be complete in
August, call for the restoration of the Early Romanesque Revival facade and for
the addition of a 10,000-square-foot, two-story metal and glass structure that
will house eight playrooms, an after-school classroom, a kitchen, main office
and nurse's office. The building will accommodate up to 108
"The goal of the project is to highlight the landmark and make the new
construction different," said Heidi Blau, a partner at Buttrick White and
Burtis, a Manhattan-based architectural firm that has been involved in several
historic restorations or renovations in the city, including Central Park's
ballplayers concession stand and the park's Charles A. Dana Discovery Center.
"The facade is a wonderful fragment, and it will be restored. The bricks will
be repointed and the paint that was added later will be removed. The two new
long walls will be articulated with a screen of red brick and the metal panels
will be grayish or greenish to complement the deep red of the brick. The old
and new will co-exist pretty comfortably."
The design of the new building, she said, will be a tribute to St. Monica's
rich, long history in Jamaica. The original St. Monica's, built in 1840, was
once the center of Jamaica's Irish-Catholic community and was surrounded by a
rectory, a parish hall, a convent and school building.
Before long, the tiny wooden church was so packed on Sunday mornings that
it couldn't hold all the worshipers. The new, larger church was erected in 1856
and remained open until 1973, when - after the congregation dwindled - the
diocese closed it and the city took over the property for York College.
Then the abandoned church fell into disrepair and into the hands of
vandals, who stole its dormer windows and even its roof. When the state took
control of the college in 1978, the church was bricked in an effort to protect
it and shore it up structurally.
By 1998, St. Monica's was in sad shape. But things were looking up: The
state set aside $700,000 to study the possibility of renovating it. Even then,
the college was considering converting it to a child-care center. But before
any work was done, disaster struck and the roof fell in during a heavy
"I went by the morning it was blown down," Cogan said. "For years, the
owners had been warned about it. Everybody knew it was a problem but nobody did
anything. This was an unfair act to the public."
York College Dean Ronald Thomas said that at that time, the college had
been "seeking state support to maintain the structure. But right after the
state aid arrived, the roof collapsed, and engineers determined that the facade
was stable but that the remaining walls had to be removed for safety."
Cogan said the new plan, which must be approved by a host of agencies and
discussed in a public hearing (not yet scheduled), "sounds reasonable."
Meanwhile, St. Monica's continues to stand tall in its steel supports as it
patiently awaits its new role. Through the vacant windows in its bell tower,
it sees all: The trains glide above; the subways rattle underneath. It's
surrounded by life, but it is a lone soldier in its empty weed-choked field as
it watches over Jamaica. The children who come to learn and play will change
"It's a terrific opportunity for a building to have a new life," Blau said.
"It's life was cut short. I'm sorry about what happened to it, but the college
is going to get a great facility."