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Lesley moving old church to create art complex

Workers prepared North Prospect Church on Massachusetts Avenue for relocation to accommodate new construction.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Workers prepared North Prospect Church on Massachusetts Avenue for relocation to accommodate new construction.

Almost 150 years ago a team of horses moved North Prospect Church a mile up Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge to Porter Square. Next month, the 188-ton church will be on the move again.

In early December, Lesley University will move the church at 1797-1803 Massachusetts Ave. to the south side of the property to make way for a new four-story building that will house its art institute, which has been known as the Art Institute of Boston for 100 years.

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Work preparing to move the massive structure began in the spring, and the church is now resting on crib boxes seemingly suspended high above the ground to the wonderment of passersby in Porter Square.

“Every single day there are at least 100 people who take photographs,” said Tom McDermott, a project manager for the construction management firm, John Moriarty and Associates, that Lesley hired for the project.

Instead of the horses used in the church’s 1867 move, workers next month will use a hydraulic system to roll the church on wheels about 24 feet forward, and roll it to the side about 70 to 80 feet before lowering it onto its new foundation. McDermott said the move will probably begin around Dec. 9 and could take three to five days.

The church is being moved so that Lesley University can relocate the Art Institute of Boston, which has been part of the university since 1998, from its Kenmore Square location to Cambridge, said Marylou Batt, vice president for administration for the university.

Litigation has delayed the project for several years. Neighbors Peter Lang, Katherine Lapierre, Sarah Farrington, and her brother John raised multiple complaints and argued that the project was too big and would do away with green space. In 2011, the state Land Court struck down a suit the neighbors filed that claimed the Cambridge City Council engaged in illegal spot zoning to enable Lesley’s project. Thomas Bracken, the attorney for the plaintiffs, said that after losing an appeal of the Land Court decision in 2012, the neighbors decided not to seek another.

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Batt said construction on the church began in May. When it is completed, Lesley University is hoping to move into the Massachusetts Avenue property in early 2015. The university will sell the art institute’s building at 700 Beacon St. in Boston, she said.

The university purchased the church in 2006 and will restore and repurpose the building once it has been moved. The church is on the National Register of Historic Places and was originally known as the Old Cambridge Baptist Church. It was built in 1845 on the site of what is now Harvard University’s Littauer Center. It was moved to Porter Square in 1867 and renamed North Prospect Congregational Church.

Batt said that as part of the restoration work, a new steeple is being built for the church that closely resembles the steeple atop the church in 1910.

Inside, the church will be converted into a library and design studios. A three-story glass-enclosed common area will connect the church to a new four-story building for art galleries, studios, and art-making spaces. Combined, the buildings will be called the Lunder Arts Center and the art institute’s name is changing to the Lesley University College of Art and Design.

Lesley University president Joseph Moore said the project will enable the move of the art institute closer to the university’s school of education, which benefits learning and prevents students from having to shuttle back and forth between Boston and Cambridge.

“It makes the university whole in a sense that the art school is now here and everybody feels connected to it,” Moore said. “Now we’re going to be able to have that art school right in the middle of the university.”

Brock Parker can be reached at brock.globe@gmail.com.

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