16th Street Showdown: Demolish Church To Save It?
Deep into more than 10 hours of argument and testimony in a jam-packed District government hearing room yesterday, someone finally dared to predict the fate of the Brutalist bunker on 16th Street NW that the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, has miserably called home for 37 years.
"We all know how this case will end," said Jack Jacobson, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Dupont Circle. "The First Amendment will be upheld somewhere. Somewhere, somehow, common sense must prevail."
It takes a special strength to maintain that kind of optimism in the face of the mind-numbing torrent of fantasies and fear-mongering that flowed before D.C. planning director Harriet Tregoning--who is hearing the case of the Christian Science congregation's plea to be allowed to demolish its concrete home two blocks from the White House.
Tregoning, acting as Mayor Adrian Fenty's agent, is charged with deciding the fate of the church, which historic preservationists say is a modernist jewel that must be saved even if its owners despise everything about it, and which the congregation contends is a money-sucking, energy-wasting, decrepit dump that is so cold, so ugly, and so anti-pedestrian that it undermines their spiritual mission.
The dispute has dragged on for decades (the D.C Preservation League has a good history of the case here), and this latest phase is well into its second year. The city's historic preservation board voted 7-0 almost exactly a year ago to declare the church a D.C. landmark, thereby preventing the Christian Scientists from bulldozing the bunker.
The question before Tregoning is whether to approve the church's request to raze the building. But just as the city's Historic Preservation Board refused to consider any First Amendment issue in the case--does a city government, trying to preserve its architectural heritage, have the right to tell a religious organization what to do with its sanctuary?--so too is Tregoning limiting testimony mainly to whether the Third Church would face an undue financial hardship if it were forced to keep a building it says it cannot afford.
Through much of yesterday's session, it was hard to remember that that was the issue. Preservationists were intent on demonstrating to Tregoning--but really more to the church and its members, many of whom were in the room--that there were all manner of alternatives to tearing down the building, which academics and preservationists love, in good part because no one else sees any merit in the structure.
When supporters of the church protested that they too believe in historic preservation, but that this building is neither historic nor worth preserving, the city's architectural defenders scoffed and exchanged little laughs among themselves.
"Ours is a community that exists only because of historic preservation," Jacobson said of Dupont Circle. But he said the Third Church case just doesn't meet the basic standards for preservation: "No one is tearing down the National Cathedral here to put up a Wal-Mart. Everyone here today wants to preserve a church. The difference [between us] is whether the church is a building or the people within it."
Arthur Cotton Moore, the elegant architect who designed Georgetown Harbour, was typical of the pro-preservation witnesses in putting forth all manner of suggestions for how to save the building. "I can see the church is in a hard place and I'd like to help them," he said. He warned against demolishing the building simply because it is unfashionable, and he recalled the great battle that preservationists won to save the Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue NW--a building that was much derided as ugly and inefficient when it too was proposed for demolition.
Moore proposed adding windows and a new street-facing entrance to the blank concrete walls that now face 16th and I streets. He suggested adding retail or restaurant space on the ground floor of the building to provide the church with an income stream that could pay for the $7 million-plus in repairs that the church edifice needs. He said Third Church should hire a lighting consultant. And he presented Tregoning with a sketch showing how a five-story office building could be cantilevered over the existing church to give Third Church a strong income stream and save the building below.
"Washington is notorious for being one of the dullest architectural scenes anywhere," Moore said. "We have squat boxes everywhere" because of the city's height restriction. Putting an office building over the church could create a fascinating new structure, help the church's finances, and preserve a landmark, he said.
Other preservationist witnesses suggested adding a museum or gallery to the church's building, or sharing the space with another church, or renting out the sanctuary for meetings, parties, or services of other religions.
Thanks, but no thanks, say church members. They never considered and they don't want "a nightclub or a gallery or a restaurant," said the church's lawyer, George Keys. "The intent of Third Church is to remain on the corner of 16th and I as a church--period."
They want to build themselves a new church at that same location, and they want that new church to be everything that this building isn't: light, airy, open, friendly, economical, energy-efficient, intimate, and, God forbid, church-like.
"There's always been someone who thought they knew better than Third Church what was right for our membership," said former church board chairman Mark Mathiesen. "It's ironic that we're asking for relief from a government that's always been in the same situation with the federal government."
There were choice moments throughout the day, as a concrete restoration contractor testifying for the preservationists admitted that his conclusion that the concrete damage on the church exterior could be repaired was identical to his conclusions about every single building he'd ever examined--"Anything can be repaired," he said.
An architect testifying for the church slammed Brutalism, quoting the National Capital Planning Commission's own plan for the city, which said that modernist buildings "have proven to undermine vibrant urban life." And of course architects for the other side said the building improves urban life by adding variety and telling the story of that chapter of our design history.
In all, an extraordinary number of experts on structural and mechanical engineering, architecture and restoration of decrepit buildings got themselves a nice Thanksgiving week consulting check.
And in the end, not a word of their purported expertise may matter. Tregoning appeared to be sympathetic to the church's predicament, focusing many of her questions on the extremely high cost of making the building usable and sustainable. But she didn't seem terribly impressed by or interested in the religious freedom issue, which no representative of an elected official in the District is likely to want to wade into.
That will be left to the courts, which is where the church will head directly if Tregoning doesn't let them tear down their home and build a new one.
For now, the main issue is money, and it's clear that the church doesn't have much of it left. (They've blown more than $100,000 just fighting this battle through the D.C. bureaucracy, their leaders said.)
But that's a message the preservationists don't want to hear. When Richard Wagner, an architect from Baltimore, suggested that the Third Church should rent out its space to all manner of outside groups and get itself a whole lot of new members so it could afford to stay in its building, Tregoning had had enough.
"You're kind of suggesting that it would be great for the church to quintuple its congregation," she said. "Are you buying GM stock right now?"
"No," said the puzzled witness.
"But you think [another] church would want to join a congregation that has this $7 million in needs?"
Bringing in another church to rent space is "different from buying GM stock," Wagner insisted.
"It's like buying a GM car," Tregoning offered.
"Possibly," the witness said.
A decision isn't expected for some weeks.
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