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D.C.: Church May Not Decide Its Own Fate

The D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board last night voted unanimously to deny a downtown Christian Science church the right to tear down its home and build a new place of worship better suited to their spiritual needs.

The vote--the latest government rejection of the congregation's desire to rid itself of a building it considers an expensive, cumbersome eyesore--appears to leave the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, no choice but to take its fight to the courts.

Washington's preservation board chairman, Tersh Boasberg, encouraged church leaders to do just that, repeatedly cutting off church leaders and supporters who sought to appeal to the board on the basis of religious freedom. "You can challenge the landmarking [of the building] in any court of your choice," he said. "We are not here to reconsider the designation" of the church as a historic building.

As they did when they declared the church historic last year over the objections of the church's leaders and members, the preservation board turned down an application to demolish the structure --located three blocks from the White House on 16th Street NW--on the grounds that its Brutalist architecture is historic, distinctive and a treasure that transcends the owner's use and ability to maintain the facility.

Boasberg tried to portray the preservation board as "extremely sympathetic to the needs of the congregation," and he chastised the church's leaders for failing to sit down with the District's preservation staffers to work out alternatives to demolition.

"We certainly could see adding an entry, adding more glass to the facade," or extending the building outward or upward, preservation officer David Maloney said. But church officials have declined to meet with city officials to go over possible additions to their building.

That's because it is the very nature of the building that serves the church so poorly, said Darrow Kirkpatrick, a senior member of the congregation who until recently was its First Reader or lay leader. "The structure does not meet our worship needs and the church requires a structure that does," he told the board. The concrete bunker's main entrance is hidden from three of four directions approaching the building, "leaving the erroneous impression that we are closed to outsiders," he said. The 60-foot-high concrete walls of the church's exterior "give a forbidding and secretive appearance to passersby."

The Christian Scientists have a long catalogue of reasons why their building is unsuitable, from its dark interior to the formidable energy costs in a concrete structure. And the church's lawyers believe the city has no right to tell a religious organization what it can do with its building. Indeed, a federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 was designed expressly to protect religious groups from government actions that might impose an undue burden on the exercise of religious freedom.

"We care a great deal about our churches," Boasberg said. "I'm just hoping we don't see you on the steps of our Supreme Court someday--it's going to be a long way away."

But that is exactly where this case seems headed. Attempts to persuade the preservation board to back down and allow that a church might not want to hold services in a fortress met with deaf ears. "No one is tearing down the National Cathedral here to build a K-Mart," said Jack Jacobson, an advisory neighborhood commissioner from the Dupont Circle area. "All the money being spent on this process could be spent on the church's social missions."

"We are looking at a train wreck," said Terry Lynch, the longtime executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations.

Boasberg agreed that "We certainly don't want to have a train wreck," but immediately added that "Our job is to...protect our resources."

The parties will see each other next in court.


By Marc Fisher |  July 25, 2008; 8:25 AM ET
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I am an architect and I concur with the Board's decision to deny demolition. The church building is indeed an architectrual treasure, even though the style may not be one you particularly enjoy. What reasons do the church give for not trying to work out a compromise resolution with the city?

Posted by: Lynn Myers | July 25, 2008 9:13 AM

I am just a DC resident. But I wonder if the Church leaders would be able to approach some member of Congress and have them attach an item to some obscure bill whch would over rule the Board and allow the demolition of the structure. Makes sense to me and I'm sure to a lot of DC residents.

Posted by: DC Resident | July 25, 2008 9:24 AM

So when the federal courts rule that the Preservation Board violated federal law in not allowing the church to dispose of its property, how much money will the taxpayers have shelled out for this useless case?

I truly is the height of arrogance for a group of unelected bureaucrats to tell a property owner what he/she can and cannot do with their property. Especially when that property is not meeting the needs of its owner and is costing the owner a fortune in energy and maintenance costs. If the Preservation Board wants to keep the property as is, then let the Preservation Board members use their own money to buy the property and maintain the incredibly ugly architectural style that gets them all hot and bothered.

Posted by: Befuddled | July 25, 2008 9:32 AM

mr. boasberg is being pretty disingenuous when he says he doesn't want to see them in court. i believe he could care less. as has been mentioned elsewhere, there isn't a building in the city that man doesn't want to have declared historic.

Posted by: IMGoph | July 25, 2008 9:35 AM

The church should demolish the building without a permit and make Boasberg lay down in front of the bulldozer. Then we'll see how committed he is to saving our "valuable resources".

Posted by: Chris | July 25, 2008 9:41 AM

The building is a complete eyesore. It's like declaring the FBI building to be a historic treasure. If someone else had purchased it, knowing it was subject to the historical preservation restriction, I wouldn't feel sorry for them at all. If I were the church, I would simply stop making any repairs to the property and make D.C. condemn it--that way you force D.C. to pay for the privilege of slapping everything with these ridiculous restrictions.

Posted by: JoeSch. | July 25, 2008 9:49 AM

"Boasberg tried to portray the preservation board as "extremely sympathetic to the needs of the congregation," and he chastised the church's leaders for failing to sit down with the District's preservation staffers to work out alternatives to demolition.

"We certainly could see adding an entry, adding more glass to the facade," or extending the building outward or upward, preservation officer David Maloney said. But church officials have declined to meet with city officials to go over possible additions to their building."

I've got some ideas for a few additions that the church could add that would fit in with their architectural motif - how about a moat, a couple rows of dragon's teeth, and an 88mm antitank gun? This building's architecture would be significant if it were in Normandy or on the Seigfried Line; here, it's meaningless.

Posted by: frenchyb | July 25, 2008 9:59 AM

Did the building spontaneously change shape since they moved into it? Was landmark status slapped on the building without the owner's knowledge?



Well, then it's time for the "Church" to start playing ball, or find a new location. There were trade-offs in taking this prime location, like existing historic preservation rules.

>there isn't a building in
>the city that man doesn't
>want to have declared historic.

Obviously. That's why there's never any demolition or construction in downtown DC?

And this has nothing to do with religious freedom. Nothing. No-one is telling the "Church" how to use the building or how to exercise their religion. Unless the "Church" can show otherwise, the federal courts will not touch this.

The "Church"'s intransigence makes no sense. If money's the issue, apply for an easement. If access to foot traffic is the issue, put up a sign.

J Jacobson is right to complain about the "Church" wasting money and going off-mission, but he's complaining to the wrong people.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 25, 2008 10:00 AM

while I'm sympathetic to the church members who want out of that ugly block of concrete, one must question how the structure got there in the first place: didn't the Christian Scientists build it?

Posted by: eomcmars | July 25, 2008 10:13 AM

Religious freedom has it's limits. This "church" should simply sell the building. The huge amount received for the sale would allow it to relocate to more suitable digs. This is not an unheard of option for churches and every other organization, company or private household in our country. Many would prefer such a strategic location but cannot afford it, same as this "church."

Posted by: Rich | July 25, 2008 10:18 AM

The Church has little right to complain so loudly. According to the article they have not sat down with the DC Preservation staff to discuss alternatives to tearing down the structure. The staff is there to assist citizens with these issues. Many quarrels about preservation arrise erroneously largely due to a lack of healthy discussion between prefessional preservation staff and citizens.

In today's taste we might find the Brutalist structure to be an ugly eyesore, but its significance does not lie in what we think of as aesthetically pleasing today. Some people in the early 20th century thought our treasured Victorian Queen Anne houses to be horribly ugly and useless.

Posted by: Nelson | July 25, 2008 10:50 AM

Since Boasberg and his merry band landmarked the church, they've had a dreadful record on civil rights issues involving the courts and federal civil rights agencies. They're 0 for 2.

They lost in Federal Court a Fourth Amendment illegal search and seizure case before Judge Collyer, and they were forced to settle an Americans with Disabilities Act discrimination complaint brought by fair housing officers at HUD. The total cost to the taxpayers is still not determined, because there will be a separate hearing to determine the exact damages in the 55-million dollar search and seizure case. The plaintiffs legal costs and actual damages run into the millions, so we taxpayers will be footing a bill that will be seven or eight figures, thanks to HPRB and OHP.

Even after these two defeats, Boasberg still claims his group is either above or below the reach of the Constitution. He's not, he will lose, and we taxpayers will once again foot the bill for his vainglory.

Posted by: Footing the bill for this | July 25, 2008 11:29 AM

I am very sympathetic to the plight of the church, yet at the same time am a preservationist. I think in this case, the Church will simply go to the Mayor's Agent which will grant the raze and this story will go away.

With the exception of a few hours of attorney time for yesterday's HPRB meeting, there is little wasted.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 25, 2008 11:32 AM

Although not someone who supports trashing the old in favor of the new and ugly, this is one case in which I strongly support the Christian Science Church.

As Mr. Fisher indicated in his earlier article,

the building is less than 40 years old and the designation came only last year -- AGAINST the wishes of the church and numerous other stakeholders. The only thing really distinctive about it is its remarkable inappropriateness in its context, and the "solutions" that the historic preservation board are suggesting themselves entail making noticeable changes to the exterior, without making the building any more suitable or less expensive to maintain. (In this case, it would be like adding graffiti, rather than lipstick, to a pig.)

There have been far too many cases when a religious organization has been able to foist over-sized "eye-catching" structures onto a community, in contempt of zoning and community concerns. (Mitt Romney is an expert in this.) For a change, here is an instance when a church and community stakeholders want to remove one.

Down and up Pennsylvania Avenue -- and around Lafayette Park, there are instances of "adaptive reuse," where historically interesting facades have been maintained on otherwise nondescript new construction. This is a case when further creativity could be useful. Presumably the church has some ideas as to what they would put up in its place. Let's see those plans, and if they harmonize with the overall character of the neighborhood, and let the church replace its eyesore with something better.

Posted by: EdA | July 25, 2008 11:44 AM

1. Good post. Thanks for not inputting your usual bias.

2. RLUIPA needs to be tested as to whether or not it is Constitutional. It might be, it might not.

3. "No one is tearing down the National Cathedral here to build a K-Mart" - True, but if this is allowed it opens up the door for that to be possible.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 25, 2008 12:41 PM

As a DC resident I can say that the building is, in my opinion ugly and doesn't fit with the neighborhood. If the city had had better zoning 40 years ago they would have never permitted the thing to be built in the first place for being so out of character.

Posted by: Cambel | July 25, 2008 1:06 PM

The Poll you have posted is a little unfair. The HPRB's role is to protect landmarks. Advocating or voting to raze a landmark goes against its charter, irrespective of the hardships from the church.

I would guess there are board members who would vote to raze the church if it was within legal bounds to do so.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 25, 2008 2:03 PM

Any building younger than most members on the Preservation Board cannot possibly be historic. This is utterly absurd.

ALL churches generally have interesting architectural details you would not find in other buildings. Obviously age is not the issue, and the replacement building may be an even greater architectural wonder.

Posted by: bkp | July 25, 2008 3:53 PM

The church can sell the building and find another that suits their need better.

Posted by: pspox | July 25, 2008 4:20 PM

Why can't they just sell the building and rebuild elsewhere? Wouldn't they have to worship somewhere else while the building is being demolished and rebuilt anyway?

Posted by: dcp | July 25, 2008 4:30 PM

To the people who advocated that the church sell the building:

Q: Who the heck would want to buy it?

A: Only developers who would need to tear it down in order to turn a profit.

Short of selling it to the National Guard for use as an armory--it already resembles a bunker--where it could be used in its current form, this would seem to be a non-starter.

Posted by: JoeSch. | July 25, 2008 4:35 PM

Some of these comments are downright frightening. You'd think this was an issue about what is "nice looking" and what is "ugly" (and of course each person deems themselves the final arbitrator of deciding nice looking vs. ugly) and not about historic preservation (i.e., what is worth preserving because it serves as an example of where we've been as a society ... telling succeeding generations the story of a place called "Washington".)

Fortunately, we have a Mr. Boasberg here to protect us from all these "I know better than you" people out there who are so willing to let our national treasurs be torn down simply because they don't match THEIR own particular tastes. Too bad he wasn't around when we lost so much of our city's architecture in the last century. Yes, there were people then sitting around shouting "tear down those Gothic Churches, and old fashioned Victorians ... they don't serve modern needs!"

Fortunately enough of these now treasured sites are left to remind us that this should never happen again ... no matter how loud the screams from those who think they know better now in the instant what is best for everyone else for all time.

Luckily Mr. Boasberg understands that deciding what is worth preserving is not a popularity contest.

Posted by: Lance | July 25, 2008 4:42 PM

I just googled so that I could see the building that apparently everyone else has seen. Wow! It's definitely Brutalist. And it's mediocre brutalism- not Louis Kahn calibre. Not exactly a place where I would be motivated to worship God in all His glory. Buuttt, it would make a nice library...or charter school...or other government building. It's too "sturdy" to tear down. Just sell the dangon thing. Or better yet, rent it.

Posted by: dcp | July 25, 2008 4:47 PM

Eyesore does not even come close to describing this dirty piece of junk. This board needs to be disbanded and thrown out of the city.
And before you throw them out they should be made to pay my taxes. Outrages!

Posted by: John S. | July 25, 2008 4:57 PM

The church is subsidized by the people of DC, since it pays no taxes and receives all essential District services. The least it should do as a responsible member of society is to follow the laws of the District of Columbia. The building is extremely significant and the Historic Preservation Review Board is in no way keeping the congregation from worshipping as it has for years in that location.

Posted by: Taxpayer | July 25, 2008 5:02 PM

What some other commenters have neglected to take into consideration is that the needs of congregations change over the years. Many large, old downtown churches have been shuttered in many cities in recent years, replaced by suburban megachurches. The District's policies shouldn't require a church to mortgage its future by saddling it with a white elephant property to maintain--not at least without adequate compensation to the church.

I would hope that policymakers would avoid a fetishization of the past and defer to the rights of landowners to do what they want with their own property, and not force them to subsidize a minority of architecture buffs by maintaining in use a structure that its occupants have deemed unusable.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 25, 2008 5:18 PM

If the building is so wonderful, DC should buy it.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 25, 2008 5:21 PM

Actually, if the church building so ill-suits the needs of its congregants, why is it that only recently did its own website stop exhalting the virtues of the building's design and its link to I.M. Pei? Could the fact that it sold the land to a developer who plans to put an office building in its place have anything to do with the sudden change of heart?

Posted by: Lance | July 25, 2008 6:16 PM

I am a supporter of historic preservation in DC, but I feel the HPRB has over-reached on this one. The church does not meet the age criteria to be deemed historic and it is not a fine example of brutalism. There are other, mostly Federal buildings in Southwest DC, which are much better examples. I am very concerned that this high-profile case will undo much of the good work that has been accomplished in preservation and unwind the designation of many buildings and neighborhoods. If that happens, it will be a very sad day for this city.

Posted by: DC | July 25, 2008 9:12 PM

The church should have to live with this eyesore as they are the ones who foisted this monstrosity on the public in the first place, that they built what looks like a WWII flack tower in the middle of the nations capitol is a disgrace, now they have the audacity to want to tear it down, not until we get a look at what is to replace it, although it is hard to imagine anything worse however any group who went allong with the architect of this will go along with any thing,

What is wrong with traditional architecture, Why must modern chuches try to be so banal with their new buildings?

What they did was to fall for some architects BS. They were, I suppose trying to make a statement that they were going to be modern and unlike other churches, they succeded to some exent but at the expense of taste and practicality.

I fear that given another chance to build they will come up with some version of a crash landed mother ship,

They should around DC and look at the churches that have been around for decades or even centuries, look at how people interact with buildings that take the human element in consideration not just some architects wild eyed vision of what can be done with concrete,

Posted by: Warren | July 25, 2008 9:52 PM

Fill the structure with dry straw and toss in a match. The church members can observe (from a safe distance) what hell may be like. It will also give the FD some hands on training if they are notified after the flames get out of hand. Don't forget the marshmallows.

Posted by: Dan Wild | July 25, 2008 10:51 PM

The Preservation Board is totally correct on this issue. In spite of the church's deliberate neglect, this is no FBI building. If only the board could preserve us from jerks like Fisher and his ilk ...

Posted by: lex pk | July 26, 2008 12:45 AM

The Preservation Board is totally correct on this issue. In spite of the church's deliberate neglect, this is no FBI building. If only the board could preserve us from jerks like Fisher and his ilk ...

Posted by: lex pk | July 26, 2008 12:45 AM

The Preservation Board is totally correct on this issue. In spite of the church's deliberate neglect, this is no FBI building. If only the board could preserve us from jerks like Fisher and his ilk ...

Posted by: lex pk | July 26, 2008 12:45 AM

I really have to marvel at the people who put down the architecture of this church. It is truly a masterpiece. It's simplicity and raw concrete constructions evokes the simplicity and raw stone construction of the early Norman churches dotting the countryside of northeaster Europe. It's a masterpiece of the same ilk.

Posted by: Lance | July 26, 2008 12:46 AM

The architectural nazis should be forced to take it over and try to make it work for them.

Either that, or the city could buy it and turn it into a library. The city has such a great track record there!

Posted by: resident | July 26, 2008 10:54 AM

Next stop, Mayor's Agent.

Lance- Think Mr. Boasberg might some day protect us from you? See below.

"Fortunately, we have a Mr. Boasberg here to protect us from all these "I know better than you" people out there who are so willing to let our national treasurs be torn down simply because they don't match THEIR own particular tastes."

"It's simplicity and raw concrete constructions evokes the simplicity and raw stone construction of the early Norman churches dotting the countryside of northeaster Europe. It's a masterpiece of the same ilk."

Posted by: Yawn | July 26, 2008 5:03 PM

I am mystified as to why the Church found it necessasry to ask permission from anyone to raze their own building.

Their predicament is the result of having an establishment declared "historic", regardless of the manner in which the declaration came about.

I am certain this decision is not what the creators of the Preservation Board intended to be within their area of consideration.

Obviously, the person who wrote "...That's why there's never any demolition or construction in downtown DC..." has not been in D.C. more than a month.
Half of the downtown has been razed and rebuilt in the last 10 years. How does one suppose the latest Convention Center got built where churches and row houses used to be? Or the last 12 office and apartment skyscrapers between E and W Streets, NW rising up from where homes and small businesses were for 70 or 80 years?
Or how the Washington Post Bldg now sits on 15th St near M St in place of the original St Augustine Catholic church built in the 1860s.

It is evident that the Preservation Board is overstepping its bounds. If the church folks had been wise, they would have razed the building they own, and moved ahead with their plans without asking for a blessing on their decision.

I am certain the builders of the Inn at 7th and H Sts did not go thru the Preservation board to tear down the chinese cleaners and the other buildings. They simply bought the properties and continued on.

Posted by: D.C. Neighbor | July 26, 2008 10:08 PM

Just E-bay that dang thing!

Posted by: D.C. Guy | July 27, 2008 9:31 AM

The church is just complaining that they won't be able to profit as much on the sale of the building. It's about money. Not about religion. They're shamelessly using their religion to hide their greed and destroy a landmark building. Unlike Mr. Fisher I've actually been inside the building, and the worship space is one of the most tranquil, awe-inspiring spaces in the city. It is truly a spiritual oasis in an earthly city.

Posted by: John | July 27, 2008 1:20 PM

Millions of Americans travel to Paris to see its buildings, including (or maybe in the first place) the Eiffel Tower. Which is relatively new (1889) and after its construction it has been widely crticized as being an eyesore and disgrace to Paris style. And it was supposed to be torn down 20 years after the construction finished, with many critics calling to do it much sooner. Think about what it has become now before you support tearing down an original, interesting building.

Washington has many problems with its image as tourist attraction: its newer monuments are terribly ugly and plainly stupid (Korean War, and WW2 above all, compare the Berlin Holocaust memorial for example), more interesting proposed monuments are either rejected (Victims of Terrorism) or the designers are forced to get rid of anything that would move the viewers, that would make the monument stand out (MLK). There is virtually no decent place to eat, no decent toilets, few places to sit and have some rest along the National Mall. Potentially beautiful city squares are occupied by homeless people. If, in addition to that, interesting and unique buildings and landmarks are removed, who's going to come and see the city? Will tourist industry survive only on politicians and businesspeople?

Buildings like the church should be preserved, cleaned, advertised as tourist attractions, and - as tourist attractions which by definition attract money - subsidized by the city to some extent to make everyone happy.

Posted by: bwv1004 | July 27, 2008 9:10 PM

Boasberg 's quote: "Our job is to...protect our resources."

Only one problem with that Boasberg - it's not your resource. It belongs to the church. Get over yourself and stop interfearing with progress.

Posted by: DC Voter | July 28, 2008 7:23 AM

Historic Preservation is an important an noble cause. However when it is taken to an extreme such that an ordinary building designed by an ordinary architect becomes a crusade by certain activists, it dilutes the whole movement and spurs opposition and antagonism that could eventually affect our urban fabric.

Hopefully folks at the historic preservation office will realize this before they are left with nothing to oversee.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 28, 2008 3:23 PM

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