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Rendering Ceasar Right Into Federal Court

(Posted by guest blogger Steve Hendrix) As predicted by the true proprietor of this blog two weeks ago, the fight between the DC Historic Preservation Review Board and the Third Church of Christ, Scientist is going federal, and it's going fast. The fact that church supporters were able, at the height of the August doldrums, to scare up a crowd of supporting ministers and civil rights activists to gather this morning on the steps of the 16th Street building signals that they're ready to make a serious push.

They're standing in the heat at this hour to announce the filing of a civil rights lawsuit meant to settle this question: Does a city's right to protect its architectural heritage trump the freedom of a congregation to have a church building that functions the way they need it to. Against the congregation's wishes, city preservationists last year lowered the protective shroud of historic designation over the 36-year-old concrete building. Last month, the board voted unanimously to deny the church's request to tear down the bunker, as church leaders call their blocky home, and build a facility that meets its needs as a working place of worship, i.e., one that has windows, air conditioning and insulation.

In turning down the church's request, and declining to consider an appeal, preservation Board Chairman Tersh Boasberg invited the Christian Scientists to take it to the judge. As Dupont Circle ANC Commissioner Mike Silverstein noted yesterday, the city should be careful what it wishes for in this case. This civil rights challenge, he said, has the potential to do for the District's ability to regulate churches what the recent Supreme Court ruling did to the city's authority over guns...blow it away altogether.


By Steve Hendrix |  August 7, 2008; 10:49 AM ET
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Very insightful post, Steve.

Yes, ideally, in the right hands, this case could completely deprive local governments of their ability to engage in acts that are tantamount to eminent domain.

The District (or any town) cannot be allowed to deprive a church (or any citizen) of its property without compensating them for their loss. The fact that a group of unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats are responsible for the crime will no doubt factor strongly into the legal reasoning.

Thank God there are still a handful of federal judges that at least vaguely recall the existence of the U.S. Constitution.

Posted by: athea | August 7, 2008 11:40 AM

Nice job Steve. It is a shame that Marc didn't do his homework and let us know this is about a 36-year old building.

I fail to see how this site can be called part of DC's heritage when it has only been there for 36 years.

Just because it is the only concrete bunker in the area, is that it?

Or do the powers that be want the church to sell the building to one of their buddies so they can develop it themselves?

Posted by: SoMD | August 7, 2008 11:46 AM

So, the District will face yet another lawsuit caused by Boasberg and Company. It will be forced to pay millions (as in the Ekins case) and Boasberg and his pack will be none the wiser. The money spent could go to better use than paying attorney fees. Perhaps this should be a wake up call for Mr. Fenty to either remove Mr. Boasberg or aboluse HRPR all together, as was done in Philadelphia.

Posted by: Thomas | August 7, 2008 12:23 PM

Good piece, Steve.

We're gonna get socked for a multi-million dollar tab on the HPRB's misdeeds in the Elkins case - in which a federal judge found them guilty of violating Fourth Amendment search and seizure rights. That's the one where the kids - home from school - hid under the covers, while HPRB's thugs rifled the home and stole the family's personal papers. At least they didn't shoot the dogs.

I don't know how much of our taxpayer money they wasted in the case of the Mt Pleasant man who wanted to built a ramp for his 89 and 90 year old parents, but Uncle Sam slapped down HPRB on that one, too.

Now they're going to waste more millions in litigation in a case they have zero chance of winning. Maybe 20 years ago, it could have been won, but religious civil rights bills passed since then make this a fool's errand and a taxpayer headache.

The only thing I can figure is that Boasberg and his gang want to make it very unpleasant and expensive for any citizen or organization to try to exercise their civil and constutitonal rights. That way, we won't stand up to them. And they're using our tax dollars to fight this rear guard action against us and our freedoms.

Posted by: Paying for those idiots | August 7, 2008 12:51 PM

I just don't understand what's wrong with selling the darned thing. I hate seeing precious material and labor being wasted like such. They should sell it to the city. It looks like a government fortress anyhow. DC's always looking for office and function space. Take this building. It's a win-win situation. We can pay the teenagers in next year's summer job program to retrofit this block of cement. That way they'll actually be getting paid for real work.

Posted by: dcp | August 7, 2008 12:55 PM

I feel sorry for the church--it doesn't seem like they've ever been happy with this building, even though they tried to stay positive about it over the years. Now the expenses and maintenance are completely out of hand. Not to mention how completely unfriendly and closed off the building is for a church. I usually side with both architects and preservationists, but not here. And I don't hear Cossutta speaking up about it either. And has Pei EVER said he liked it? Sometimes an architect just misses completely. I think this is one of those times. When I listen to architects get all huffy about how important it is, I think of the story, the emperor has no clothes.

Posted by: sydney | August 7, 2008 1:13 PM

Hey, SoMD:

If this building - which is 36 years old - is historic, does that mean those of us who are 36 or older are also historic?

And what about Tersh Boasberg, who is more than twice as old as this "historic building?" Does that make him pre-historic?
Do we have to declare him a landmark or preserve him in amber, or something? Quick, somebody, help me out with this!!!

Posted by: Wondering | August 7, 2008 1:32 PM

So does the Church want its right to redevelop or does it want a lawsuit to test RILUPA? Seems to me if they want the former, they go to the Mayor's Agent, if the latter, then bring on the judge. Their chances are 50-50 in court. I would guess it would be much higher with the Mayor's Agent.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 7, 2008 1:54 PM

Wow, before you all start spouting off you might want to actually look into all of the facts. The very idea that the HPRB desires to make lives difficult is ludicrous. The church issue is one that needs to play out to a resolution because it is a significant building. Nobody is telling them how to deal with the interior and nobody is telling them they can't add a few windows. The problem here is that they sold the land and the adjacent office building to a developer and they need to tear down the building so another large glass block can be constructed. The church admits themselves there is no economic hardship involved. And if they hated the building from the beginning, why did they pay the architect and construct it? Why did their own brochures tout the architectural accolades it received upon construction? This is not about freedom of religion. This is about greed.

Posted by: concerned | August 7, 2008 2:06 PM

36 years old gimmeee a break! It should have to at least be 100.

Posted by: FLvet | August 7, 2008 2:07 PM

never knew my condo tower was historic

Posted by: well.... | August 7, 2008 2:09 PM

BTW, as for age, in order for a building to reach 100 years old, someone had to decide it was worth saving along the line. The Watergate complex was designated not that long ago and it is not that much older than Third Church.

Posted by: concerned | August 7, 2008 2:11 PM

There are many criteria involved in historic designation. If you want to actually education yourselves and know what those criteria are, I would recommend you visit,a,1284,q,570580,planningNav_GID,1706,planningNav,%7C33515%7C.asp

Posted by: concerned | August 7, 2008 2:13 PM

It appears the idea here is that the DC Goverment has refused to allow the building to be torn down no matter what is built in it's place. Is this report correct in that the building has no AC? I know it has few windows. Every old office building in that area has been revamped or replaced. It does seem that the church is being penalized. Nothing built in 1972 qualifies as historic.

Posted by: Sheila | August 7, 2008 2:30 PM

on the one hand, I support the church's right to get rid of that eyesore; on the other hand, I can't help but ask why they built it in the first place.

as for churches and the argument about freedom of religion, I would gladly concede them the right to do what they want with this building if the city wouldn't refuse to challenge them on every other property issue. as things now stand, a church can buy your neighbor's house, convert it to a church or replace it with something like the one the Christian Scientists are trying to unload downtown, and you couldn't do a thing about it; the city has long held that churches have near total carte blanche when it comes to the use of property -- this case notwithstanding -- no matter what the wishes of nearby residents.

Posted by: eomcmars | August 7, 2008 2:31 PM

OK, I checked the reasons for historic dsignation as requested by "concerned." Here we go:

1. It is the site of a significant event; (this building is not)

2. It exemplifies significant social, historical, or physical heritage; (this buiding does not)

3. It exemplifies distinguishing characteristics of architecture; (if ugly qualifies as a distinguishing characteristic, it does)

4. It exemplifies the work of a master artist, architect, or craftsman; (it does not, to my knowledge),

5. It contains information about historic or prehistoric events; (nope - 1972 - try again)

6. In the case of a natural form or setting, it reflects significant patterns of settlement or use of the landscape. (this does not apply)

So - help me here - which standard is being used to qualify this building as historic?

Posted by: Sheila | August 7, 2008 2:34 PM

Wondering: Exactly my point! 36 years old is historic to the Preservation Review Board but not to anybody with two active brain cells.

Like I said, maybe it's the only pillbox left in DC. That could be why the Preservation Review Board feels it must stay as-is.

Personally, I feel that any good pillbox needs a few 50 cal. machine guns on top, but I think the Third Church of Christ might not agree. Or, they could get the 50 cal.'s based upon religious freedom grounds and be waiting the next time the Preservation Review Board drops in for a visit? Film at 11.

Posted by: SoMD | August 7, 2008 2:39 PM

Ugly is a subjective term. This building has been cited for architectural excellence since its construction. It does exemplify a particular style, ie Brutalism. I must tell you that once upon a time people heaped the same critical judgement of "ugly" against victorian buildings.

Also, Araldo Cassuta and I.M. Pei and Partners are significant architects on an international scale. Sorry if you did not know that.

Posted by: concerned | August 7, 2008 2:55 PM

The Watergate complex is historic? Damn that place is ugly, I hoped it would get torn down some day.

If the DC government loves that eyesore so much, buy it.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 7, 2008 4:04 PM

To anonymous:
The Church will take this to the Mayor's Agent. They have filed the court suit. They are pushing for legislation in City Council to force the city to abide by RLUIPA.

To concerned:
The Church is forbidden from bringing financial hardship to HPRB under HPRB rules. But I assure you, the costs of changing a light bulb ($8000 to put up scaffolding) and heating and cooling a concrete shell with no insulation are crippling to a modest sized congregation. Plus the porous concrete is deteriorating, and maintenance costs will only grow.

On another matter, I find your comment that this is about greed to be offensive, bigoted, and frankly anti-Christian.

That's my name up top. What's yours?

Posted by: Mike Silverstein | August 7, 2008 4:21 PM

Not to be "that guy" but....isn't "Ceasar" spelled "Caesar?" Yes, I like the salad, but I also took five years of Latin and have a double major, one of which is History....

Sorry, Steve....I couldn't resist!

Posted by: BobT | August 7, 2008 9:39 PM

It is not anti-christian to accuse churh officials of greed. After all, simony is one of the oldest of sins.
It seems that Sheila does not cosider I.M. Pei a significant architect; therefore, we should tear down his East Building for the National Gallery. It can hardly be called historic, as it is even newer than this church.
The Old Post Office,the Executive Office building, the Renwick Gallery, the Smithsonian Castle and the Holocaust Museum were all slated for destruction because they did not meet official Washington's limited menu of acceptable styles: Bland Beaux-Arts,Gargantuan Georgian or Mussolini Modern, all decorated with appropriate Socialist Realist sculptures.

Posted by: Lex Pk | August 7, 2008 10:11 PM

One of the underreported things in all this is that the Christian Science Mother Church in Boston encouraged Third to move to 16th and I on The Mother Church's own land to complement its attractive office building to which Third is joined as a unit—and take on The Mother Church's great architect as part of its Grand Plan for that corner. The architecture was commissioned to I. M. Pei's office, as was the monumental and much praised Church Center in Boston (and the East Wing of the National Gallery!)—and enthusiastically approved at the time by The Mother Church Directors and their coordinating developer. The plans were thought to be "signature" and would give Christian Science an impressive presence in the National Capital. Now that The Mother Church and Third want money for both structures, they have turned on the whole project. The term "brutal architecture" is an unfortunate label. At one point this architecture was thought of as "geometric," "innovative," and "modern," a child of earlier great architects like Corbusier. Actually, inside, the building is quite pleasant and displays an imagination and beauty not shown in hardly any other contemporary CS church except Bernard Maybeck's in California. There's free parking underneath, which is a great advantage for a city church. If this building is to be condemned, isn't the East Wing also a kind of bunker and isn't the Church Center "brutalist"—and targets for tearing down? Whatever "functional" problems Third has, if there are any, are probably shared by the Church Center and have essentially been solved for the Boston buildings.

Posted by: Dorie Lowry | August 8, 2008 11:51 AM

I'm surpised that either side is pushing so this issue still without getting any closer to a compromise. The two interests (unimpeded religious practice & a distintive, diverse, and beautiful city) are both too important (and too fragile) to put against each other in court.

With the property landmarked, could the review board allow the demolition and then review the new construction? The congregation would get their new building and we'd know that some big ugly doesn't go in its place.

Posted by: the other side | August 8, 2008 2:06 PM

Last night I attended the debates between Evans and Silverman and was greatly disapointed to hear both Evans and Silverman say they would each work to ensure the destruction of The Third Church of Christ Scientist because they thought it was "ugly".

In response to that I drafted a question which got passed up to the podium but which Davis Kennedy (the moderator and the editor of the Current Newspapers) chose not to read. (I was VERY surprised to hear him say at 8:20 'We have no more questions'.)

The question read:

"Do you think a Councilmember should be taking a stance on the worthiness of preserving a structure based on politics ... or based on the advice of historic preservation experts?"

It should be noted that hundreds of architects and others from throughout the country have noted that this is one of the finest examples of all time of brutalist architecture ... which incidentally comes from the French "beton brut" or "raw concrete".

It should also be noted that as recently as some months back, the church itself was extolling the virtues of the design of the church on its own website and the connection with I.M Pei. Additionally, how well known is it that the church has already sold the land to a developer who plans to put an office building on the site and build a smaller church for the congregation. Coincidental that the building no longer serves the church's needs?

Personally, I really really like the design. It reminds me of the austerity you see in Norman churches throughout Europe. Simple, reflectful, pious. But then again, I remember liking Victorian architecture in the '60s when the "older" generation couldn't wait to see them torn down fast enough since to them they were ugly because it reminded them of ... "the past".

Because tastes are both transient and personal, historic preservation can't be about tearing down what one person (or even generation) likes and leaving up what they do. It is more about leaving a history behind of where we've been so that all those that come after us can better understand where we've been. Yes, some folks want to erase the '70s from their minds ... And like the Victorians which got pulled down by the dozens in the mid-century era of the 20th century, it's now the mid-century architecture which is most at risk. Yes, the historic preservation laws were enacted in response to the wholesale destructruction of the Victorians, but those laws apply equally to all other historic structures. And yes, this is already a historic structure to that rising mass of the population born after 1968 ... or a 40 year old, to put it another way.

Posted by: Lance | August 8, 2008 5:01 PM

I walk past that building several times a week. GAWD,it's ugly. Those wishing to preserve it should emigrate to central Asia, or buy a ticket on the next rocket to Mars.

Posted by: Count Bobulescu | August 8, 2008 10:41 PM

The Olympics tonight ... coming out of China/Central Asia were pretty amazing. I have to feel sorry --- VERY sorry --- for those individuals incapable of appreciating that which differs from the 'ordinary' they were 'raised' with.

Posted by: Lance | August 8, 2008 11:45 PM

If Third Church is so bad, so is the East Wing of the National Gallery by Pei and the Whitney Gallery by Breuer. Note this comment on the web about the Whitney:
"Considered somber, heavy, and even brutal at the time of its completion in 1966 ('an inverted Babylonian ziggurat,' according to one critic), Breuer's building is now recognized as daring, strong, and innovative. It has come to be recognized as one of New York City’s most notable buildings" Third Church is, indeed, one of DC's most notable modern buildings and must be preserved, despite the uninformed tastes of people who know nothing about architecture.

Posted by: Dorie Lowry | August 9, 2008 7:36 AM

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