Valley Stream Latest Happenings

Could historic landmark status save this 100-year-old Valley Stream church?

Historians and preservationists weigh in on what it would take to preserve Holy Trinity Church.


Valley Stream’s Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, a 100-year-old historical institution, is listed for sale at an asking price of $3.95 million. Despite seeing their membership numbers dwindle, the disappearance of their church has jolted Valley Stream Episcopalians, leaving them with more questions than answers.

While church leadership has sent its parishioners packing to neighboring churches, lifelong parishioners like Debbie Jacobs cannot quite move on. Sentimentally rummaging through files and folders of church historical photos, documents, and keepsakes painstakingly collected through the years, she has racked her brain as to why weren’t steps taken to ensure its survival, either in whole or in part, as a local historic landmark.

“This church has been such an integral part of Valley Stream and without it, Valley Stream’s Episcopal presence is gone,” said Jacobs.


Church closure is a numbers game

For Bishop Lawrence Provenzano, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, the decision to close the church came down to a matter of numbers — its value based not on historical or sentimental worth, but on an unblinking assessment of cost and membership participation.

“Membership at Holy Trinity, Valley Stream fell below the threshold to both upkeep its parish and minister to the wider community,” he said in a statement.

But while the Diocese may have a legal right to cull one of its churches and a financial urgency to do so under a regional slump in membership, historians and preservationists say Jacobs has an equally compelling argument when she says losing Holy Trinity Church means losing a valuable piece of the village’s history.

“As this is the first Episcopalian Church in the Village and is one of the oldest church buildings, it is historically significant,” said village historian Carol McKenna in a statement. “It may qualify as a cultural and/or historical landmark considering its status.”

But how exactly does an old building rise to the level of a historic landmark? How does a community with a vested interest in protecting its history do so?

“The state does not run around naming buildings with historic status, nor is the historic-ness of a building something determined by God,” said Alexandra Wolfe, chief executive of Preservation Long Island — a regional historic preservation nonprofit.


The path to historic site status

It all starts with the will and backing of the community.

“It can be as simple as a community recognizing a building that holds significant meaning or deep ties to important events within the community,” she said. A nomination process soon follows, and a review process is conducted by a historic landmark entity.

Making it onto the federal and state government’s official list of buildings and sites deemed significant to state and national history — known as the State and National Register of Historic Places — may seem like the surest way a community can safeguard an old, venerated building from being demolished or sold off.

“That’s not the best way to actually protect a building,” said Tara Cubie, Preservation Director of Preservations Long Island, who says being on a state or federal registry is merely honorific.

Cubie, however, says being placed on the registry has its perks. It opens the door for government grant and tax credit opportunities “to pay for the maintenance and restoration of the building.”

The listing mandates that government agencies undertaking projects that could affect a historic building must take all measures to “avoid or reduce” their impact on the structure, said Chelsea Towers, survey and national register coordinator at the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation.


Why federal and state listings are not enough

But the registry alone does not have the legal muscle to stop an owner from tearing it down. The same obligation by the government is not extended in the same way to the owner of the building.

If she is not using state or federal funds to complete a project on the building and does not require any state or federal permits to do so, noted Towers, the owner is practically free to “remodel, alter, sell, or even demolish” as she sees fit. Then there is another intractable snag in the case of Holy Trinity — a building cannot be placed on the state or national registry without the say-so of its owner.


Local landmark laws to the rescue?

But that does not exhaust all options. The best defense against owners or inheritors of a historic property who would seek to tear it down or sell it off are local landmark laws, argued Cubie.

“Each municipal jurisdiction follows their own rules in determining what building is historic and what owners can and can’t do with the property,” said Cubie, who said municipalities usually establish a historic landmark commission to oversee and enforce these regulations.

Most of the time these laws allow owners to alter the interior of the building but prevent its exterior from being destroyed or its historic character distorted, contended Cubie.

Roughly a third of Long Island’s local governments have some local landmark regulations in their books but the Village of Valley Stream is not one of them.

So, for now at least, the lack of local landmark regulations may make the goal of preserving Holy Trinity and the future of other similar Valley Stream historic institutions nearly unreachable.

“Every Sunday was church. Church was an extension of family and community. Some of the people in our parish have known each other for 60 years,” said Jacobs. “We don’t want it to die a quiet death.”

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