by Bill Batson
Nyack Center operates from the oldest surviving house of worship in our village, the First Presbyterian Church. The original sand stone building that stood on this spot was erected on land deeded by Peter Depew in 1816. It was torn down and replaced by today’s familiar wooden edifice in 1839.
There is a life force emanating from the building that stands at Broadway and Depew Avenue: an aura from almost 200 years of uninterrupted community activity. If it were not for an enlightened congregation and a dynamic woman, this building would have been demolished in 1990.
Jane Sherman knew that a dwindling number of congregants could no longer sustain the church. As a Presbyterian elder and the head of Nyack’s Park and Recreation committee, Sherman was also acutely aware of the need for space for young people in the community. Finding herself at the intersection of need and opportunity, Sherman was able to convince the Presbytery of New York to confer the church property to a non-profit for $1.
A less principled religious body would have been happy to sell this prime parcel to a real estate developer. Instead, they embraced the piety of allowing the not-for-profit function of this property to endure. In response to Sherman’s bold gesture, the community stepped forward to help secure this legacy by donating funds and volunteering labor: people like Jo and Peter Baer, who made substantial contributions to help transform a 19th century church into a 21st century community center. The task of continuing the epic tradition of good works at the site now falls on the skilled shoulders of Kim Cross, Executive Director of the Nyack Center.
Cross is as proud of her programs as any parent would be of their children — she won’t single out any one as her favorite. Instead, she talked about the benefits of each program. Which makes an impending decision that much more painful: because of a 50% cut in funding from cash-strapped Rockland County, Cross will have to make some very difficult choices. Unless she can find private contributions to fill the shortfall she will be deciding what our kids can manage with less of; food or computers, afterschool programs or summer camp.
The entire community is a stakeholder in the future of Nyack Center. The building houses celebrated art programs like Rivertown Films. Important civic institutions, including the NAACP and Gay Pride of Rockland use the facility for meetings and special events. There is no other venue that has both the capacity and the mandate to open its doors to every segment of the community, sometimes at a moments notice.
My drawing exaggerates the posture of the structure. The top tier looks like a soggy wedding cake in my sketch. Brooke Malloy and Nicole Hines, the Assistant Director and Office Manager respectively of Nyack Center were kind enough to humor me on a recent visit. They allowed me to climb a vertical ladder into the bell tower. On my request, Brooke rang the bell. Chiming at 1:35p on a Friday, a few people must have double-checked their watches. But in another century, a bell that tolled on an irregular interval was a warning or a call to arms
I am sure that the board and staff of Nyack Center are too sophisticated to raise a 19th century style alarm by incessantly ringing their bell, but some kind of dramatic statement is in order. Budget cuts could eventually close the doors of a structure that the passage of time, the persistence of human folly, fire and the elements have spared.
Our country was only 63 years old when the cornerstone was laid for this building. Scores of generations have maintained this fragile wooden structure through weekly offerings, charitable donations and public revenue. What will become of the generation that breaks that compact and allows this treasured commonly held institution to stumble or fall? The existence and history of Nyack Center make our village a place to be proud to live in. It would be a shame if that legacy ended with us.
Consider donating to Nyack Center, as so many have before you. Contribute money or volunteer, attend an event or write a letter of support. Let’s make sure that Nyack Center is alive and well in 2039 when this special building celebrates its 200th birthday.