A Threat To Pilgrim Heritage

The last vestiges of the Pilgrims' decade-long stay in the Netherlands face destruction to make room for a discotheque, shopping mall and parking garage.

The moss-adorned brick wall in the historic center of this Dutch town is all that remains of the Church of Our Lady, where the Pilgrims worshipped before they sailed to the Americas in 1620.

But if Leiden's City Fathers have their way, there will be nothing left to mark the Pilgrims' sojourn here, where they thrived in an atmosphere of religious tolerance after fleeing England.

The church wall and the nearby site of a hospital where Pilgrim leader Myles Standish recuperated from injuries he suffered while serving in the Dutch army are the only structures remaining from the Pilgrims' stay, according to Jeremy Bangs, a U.S. expert on the Pilgrims.

The last Pilgrim house in the city, William Bradford's, was torn down in 1985 to make way for a housing project.

Now, the two remaining Pilgrim monuments and 20 other medieval and 17th-century landmarks may share a similar fate to make room for a major urban redevelopment project proposed by the City Council.

"Once those building are gone, they're gone," said Bangs, former curator of Plimoth Plantation, a museum of Pilgrim history in Plymouth, Mass.

"The council has suggested putting up signs where the landmarks once stood, but what's the point if nothing is left," said Bangs, who now lives in Leiden.

Jan Vellekoop, head of the Monument Preservation Commission, defended the project, saying some of Leiden's 1,300 historic sites have to be sacrificed so the city can modernize.

"The city is a living organism and you can't stop time and keep everything in the 17th century because it was a nice time," Vellekoop said. "This is the 20th century, and there are new demands on the city to change and grow."

In a promotional brochure for the project, city officials say it will "give the heart of the city a new impulse" while "respecting the splendid monuments that are there." It makes no mention of the Pilgrim sites.

Bangs accused the City Council of withholding information on the project and scheduling impromptu meetings on the issue to prevent protests.

The city officials responsible for the project, Tjeerd van Rij and Alexander Pechtold, declined a request for comment on the issue.

Jaap Moggre, chairman of the neighborhood association nearest the church square, said the city has refused to hear his group's objections, citing city ordinances that allow only residents whose homes directly overlook the plaza to file protests. None of the association members do.

"I pass by the church square almost every day, and it will be a great loss to the neighborhood if it's destroyed," said Moggre. "It's really a beautiful place."