State vs. Church: March of the Preservation Police
Church members described the chill, the darkness and the gloom that bad design has brought to their spiritual lives. Advocates for the Christian Science Church on 16th Street NW, just two blocks from the White House, told of the extraordinary cost involved in maintaining a building that is too big, too dank and a long way from the religious ideals of their denomination. Lawyers warned the city that it was risking court action if it trampled the rights of a religious community. One member of the church broke down in tears as she told of how the concrete bunker that serves as her church's home detracts from the congregation's ability to serve the homeless and the rest of its mission.
But the District's preservation police, the Historic Preservation Review Board, doesn't care about any of that. It voted 7-0 yesterday to force the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, to keep its crumbling, 36-year-old home, which will now be an official D.C. landmark--protected from demolition or alteration by the city's law.
The church has sought for nearly two decades to avoid the landmark designation, which was requested by a group of academics and architects who consider the building, one of Washington's ugliest, to be a historically important artifact in the history of Brutalism--the school of architecture that brought us such gems as Metro headquarters, the FBI building, the University of the District of Columbia, and the Forrestal and HUD government office buildings.
Two federal laws passed during the Clinton administration seek to protect churches from the kind of extreme preservation mania that the District specializes in. "Church property is often, as is the case here, an expression of a church's theology and religious mission," says Roger Severino, a lawyer at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, an advocacy group that argued on the Christian Scientists' side. Preservation rules may result in financial hardship for a church, inhibiting the congregation's religious expression, Severino says.
But when Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Mike Silverstein of the Dupont Circle commission tried to bring up that topic at yesterday's preservation board hearing, board chairman Tersh Boasberg interrupted, saying, "We're not here to discuss the First Amendment. We're here to discuss whether the church meets the criteria" set out in the city's landmarking law.
So now the church is stuck at a facility that it does not want and cannot afford. The building, designed as a church, cannot accommodate any other purpose, and it's hardly likely that another church would want a structure that is so antagonistic to human spirituality. The developer who owns the land told the board that he wants to build a new church for the Christian Scientists that would meet their needs, conform to Pierre L'Enfant's plan for the monumental core of the city, and work in concert with an office development his company plans for the adjacent lot at 16th and K streets.
But the preservation board wasn't having any of that. It wants the city frozen in amber, regardless of the capacity of buildings to serve the functions for which they were constructed and regardless of the desires of those who own and use those buildings.
The church "is in a league of its own," said George Washington University professor of American civilization Richard Longstreth, who spoke for the architects seeking the landmark status. It is a "distinctive and original work," and he went on to name a long, long list of architects who believe the church has historical importance and artistic merit.
That was all the board had to hear. The fact that the building's uninsulated concrete is deteriorating didn't matter. Nor did the fact that the building sits beside "an empty and windswept plaza" and presents "a blank, soulless wall" to 16th Street, as church member David Alan Grier, a GW historian, put it. Nor did the contention by church member Amy Meyers that "This building is valuable only inasmuch as it serves its purpose," or her statement that "As Christian Scientists, we don't place much emphasis on church buildings."
The proponents of landmarking had no response to any of these arguments. They merely repeated their view that the only thing that matters is whether the building is an important example of some school of design. "Their rationale boils down to 'we're smarter than you,'" Silverstein said.
To protect some esoteric notion of academic value, the city's preservation board has now sentenced the District's taxpayers to years of expensive legal battle, for surely this landmarking will lead to a lawsuit and surely the city will eventually lose. For better or worse, the laws of this country fiercely protect the separation of church and state, and those laws make quite clear that churches, not governments, get to decide in which building people shall worship and how those congregations get to spend their money. And the Christian Scientists do not want to spend their money shoring up a crumbling example of a failed and arrogant architectural experiment.
By Marc Fisher |
December 7, 2007; 6:07 AM ET
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