Rev. Dr. Thomas F. Pike
Reverend Thomas F. Pike has helped run so many organizations devoted to preserving buildings and landscapes nationwide that when he walks around a place where he has been proactive, people stop him to say thanks. During a recent stroll through Gramercy Park, for which he currently serves as a trustee and archivist, Arlene Harrison, head of the neighborhood’s block association, came through the glossily painted black iron gates and hugged him. “We love this man, he’s very special, he’s the real, real deal,” she said. “He understands what this park means spiritually to this community.”
For four decades, Reverend Pike has served as an Episcopal rector at Manhattan churches while finding countless hours each week to volunteer as a leader at city agencies and nonprofits, including the Landmarks Preservation Commission, The New York Landmarks Conservancy, Partners for Sacred Places, Preservation League of New York State and Partnership for the Homeless. On Oct. 28, he will receive HDC’s Landmarks Lion award at the Players Club near his home on Gramercy Park.
On a balmy afternoon in the park a few weeks ago, he was asked to reflect on his influence and quietly replied, “When I look back, I just wish I’d done more.” He attributes his lifelong interest in performing good works for historic architecture partly to his childhood in progressive intellectual circles. He grew up in Hastings, New York, where his father, Frederick, managed a newspaper and was friendly with African-American scholars including City College sociologist Kenneth Clark and newspaper owner Alger Adams. In the late 1950’s, as an undergraduate at SUNY New Paltz, the future reverend at first studied painting, then switched career tracks as calls for social change swept the United States.
“The fight for civil rights was in full swing and the peace movement was in its early days,” he recalled. Soon after he received his Yale divinity degree in 1963, he was at the frontlines of these causes. “I was arrested five times: that gives you a flavor of my life,” he said. He spent overnights in jail for alleged offenses committed while protesting workplace discrimination, giving antiwar sermons and leading marches demanding emergency housing for black families left homeless by suspicious fires.
In 1971 he was hired as rector for what is now Calvary/St. George’s—the congregation owns two 1840’s churches near Gramercy Park—and until his retirement last year he conducted numerous services there daily. In the 1970’s and ‘80’s, as he patiently dealt with repairs on those structures, fellow clergy kept plaintively telling him about their own buildings’ hefty maintenance bills and how they were occasionally resorting to demolition.
“So I became more and more revved up about preserving religious buildings,” Reverend Pike said. “I began to see the relationship between preservation and social justice.” Old churches and synagogues, he added, “enable a community to tell its story honestly, tangibly, and graphically, in a way that can’t be denied. And the diversity of American religious buildings celebrates the diversity of our whole society. If we erase the buildings, we’re rewriting history.”
Serving in his numerous pro bono posts and grants-giving roles, he has persuaded other religious leaders to adapt structures for outreach projects including food kitchens, alcohol abuse treatment programs and temporary housing for the homeless. He has also advocated for the preservation of secular buildings in struggling neighborhoods, like the humble row of freed slaves’ homes in Bedford-Stuyvesant now called the Weeksville Heritage Center. “Buildings do not have to be beautiful to have powerful storytelling capacity,” the reverend said. “Preservation is not an elitist pursuit, although it’s sometimes thought of as a rich man’s sport.”
Gratitude for his organizations’ support, he added, has come from surprising sources. “I’ve been out to a Congregationalist church in Brooklyn where a young mother living across the street in an apartment building with every window broken came up to me and said, ‘Looking out every day and seeing that steeple repaired now—it gives us a sense of peace and a lot of hope.’ I’m absolutely convinced that architecture can change lives. I like to quote the philosopher Ernst Bloch, who said that architecture is an embodiment of hope. You only fix the roof of a place when you believe your community will be there for a long, long time. Every repair is a gesture of commitment to the future.”
The reverend’s retirement last year has allowed him and his wife Lys, a former director of the city’s Council on the Environment, more time to focus on their own landmark: a clapboarded 1790 farmhouse near Camden, Maine. They spend half the year there when not visiting their three children: Jean, an architect in New York- Nicholas, an assets manager in Boston- and Thomas Jr., an Army lieutenant-colonel about to be deployed on his second stint in Afghanistan.
Receiving a Lion award, Reverend Pike said, “feels comfortable, but I feel a little unworthy, too, since I know and admire so many past Lions. But I like being identified as a lion, a kind of radical preservationist. That brings together many threads of my life.”