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A Born-Again Building / Old St. Monica's will give sturdy face to a new children's center

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

of New York's York College has defined the Jamaica skyline. The E train rumbles

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

infant-to-school-age children.

"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

snowstorm.

"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

all that.

"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."

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