“There’s a lot of vines growing on the church,” says Patrick Chiou, the new owner of the former Holy Innocents Church in Arbor Hill.
‘A lot’ is an understatement: the English-style 1850 church is so enveloped by clinging vines that (except for freezing weather) it’s almost impossible to discern what the building looks like—or even if its adjacent chapel is still intact (it is). There’s also a 1880s parish house on the lot, hidden by decades of unchecked vegetative growth.
“As we were pulling the vines away, we saw the vines are actually holding the church together,” Chiou says. “So we left some of the vines on to keep the cobblestones from falling down.
“There are parts of the church that are unstable, so we can’t move too quickly right now,” he adds.
The most unstable part is the rear roof and walls–after nearly 20 years of neglect by Hope House Inc., the church’s southwest corner collapsed in May, 2015, destroying a stained-glass window and leaving the interior exposed to the elements. That seemed a likely death knell for the Gothic Revival structure, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. It’s been categorized as endangered by Historic Albany Foundation for more than a decade.
“It was definitely not taken care of by the previous owner for many years,” says Chiou, a real-estate developer based in Albany and Brooklyn who purchased the church in November of last year. “That’s why they wanted to sell it, because the back portion collapsed.”
Hope House, a drug-rehabilitation facility, had owned the church buildings on North Pearl Street since the late 1990s. In summer of 2016, the non-profit applied for a demolition permit, despite the advocacy of Historic Albany Foundation, which was working toward finding a new owner, and other preservation groups and individuals. The permit hearing was postponed due to public opinion, including arguments in favor of preservation by Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, and by Nathan Kernan, a descendent of the church’s original benefactors.
Even so, it seemed doubtful that Holy Innocents would find a suitable owner in time to prevent demolition by bulldozer or by neglect, but it did: Chiou, a graduate of UAlbany, purchased the properties, he says, because “the church will be a key, a big key,” of where he’s developing. He and his partners are in the process of converting two derelict townhouses on Broadway into apartments, in addition to other downtown conversions.
Chiou says he has already spent thousands of dollars on the church buildings just for clean-up, removing decades of debris and vandalism. “It’s a slow, tedious process right now,” he says. He’s not sure yet what the church will need structurally. “In the spring, we’ll be able to get repairmen in there and see.” Estimates to repair and restore the church have run as high as a million dollars. “I took it knowing this was going to be a very difficult project,” Chiou says. “We’re sort of wrapping our hands around it right now.”
The Church of Holy Innocents is an early example of Gothic Revival in America, and has considerable historic significance. Its architect, Frank Wills, was an influential proponent of the soon-to-be-popular medieval style. Made from rough-hewn bluestone, the church is an artful approximation of a country parish church, in what was then the most fashionable part of town. The adjoining chapel was built in 1866 from a matching design by prominent Albany architects Woollett and Ogden.
Albany historian and archeologist John Wolcott, an Arbor Hill resident and long-time advocate for the church, says that Holy Innocents contains stained-glass windows by designer John Bolton, and possibly, by his brother William Jay also. The Bolton brothers are considered to be the earliest and finest figural stained-glass designers in the country. Wolcott believes that the church is the only structure remaining by Wills to contain Bolton windows. His research was cited in a preservation article by Art Watch International.
Holy Innocents also has strong ties to Albany social history. William H. DeWitt, one of the city’s wealthiest lumber barons, financed its construction on lots donated by his wife, Ann Couenhoven. The church was erected as a memorial for their four young children, who had all died by 1850. Around 1950, the Episcopal congregation moved away and sold the church to a Russian Orthodox congregation, which replaced the original steeple and bell with an onion dome topped by an orthodox cross. The verdigris dome has since become a neighborhood landmark.
In the 1980s, a married couple lived in the chapel and ran a much-loved bookstore out of the church. By all accounts, the buildings were well cared for. In 1997, Hope House acquired the properties, which are next door to the Bette Center, its drug-treatment residence, in a foreclosure. “They got it for nothing, or next to nothing,” says Wolcott. The church and chapel remained vacant, and without maintenance, until 2015 when a stone arch gave way, causing the collapse. Wolcott reports that the window that was smashed was an especially beautiful design of a trio of angel musicians.
The Holy Innocents parcel is at the corner of Colonie Street, just up from Broadway and down a block from the Ten Broeck Mansion. The church front is across the street from Ida Yarborough Homes housing project. During the 1980s crack epidemic, the area was notorious, but in recent years it’s been relatively quiet. Chiou calls it “the city’s forgotten section.”
“My money is very invested in the area,” he says. “We want to bring this section of Albany back to where it should be. The church is part of where we are developing now, so it’s the cornerstone. We’re going to do something commercial with it,” he continues. “It may be a restaurant, it may be a shop. I’m kicking around some ideas but it’s still up in the air.”
Chiou’s extensive real-estate portfolio ranges from high rises in Brooklyn to two very historic Albany buildings on State Street, purchased with his business partners. The partners also converted a neglected structure on Beaver Street into the upscale Beaver Lofts apartments.
“With new construction, it’s pretty straightforward,” he says. “With older buildings, there are a lot of surprises. People say I’m a little crazy for doing these [historic projects] but I get satisfaction out of it,” he enthuses. “For one thing, it’s literally saving them from demolition. You’re saving a piece of history that cannot be remade. For another, older buildings have challenges and I like to be challenged.”
Development of the parcel may be mixed-use, Chiou says, possibly retail with residential, or a restaurant with retail. Asked if a housing project across from the entrance might be a detraction, he says, “No, why should it. There’s going to be a lot of people walking around, looking for somewhere to eat, to buy groceries. I see the change coming.”
Chiou estimates 150 apartment units coming in. “Look on Broadway, there’s 100 units alongside of my buildings, and once mine are completed, that’s 15 units. That’s maybe 320 people in that one area. There will be gradual change on Broadway,” he continues. “There will be demand for commercial. People will want to go out to eat, to go shopping.”
He describes the church properties as being in the middle, between downtown (walking distance from the Palace Theater) and the warehouse district. “I really think Broadway will be the connector,” he says. “Our [Holy Innocents] project will bridge all the other projects.
“Restoring the church will create a little buzz,” he adds. “It will say, ‘hey, this is a comeback. We’re revitalizing.'”
Photos by Thom Williams
update: view a gallery of church photos here