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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.

By Marc Fisher |  November 26, 2008; 8:05 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

It's such a shame that so much wonderful modernist architecture had been destroyed in DC these last 20 years and THIS brutalist building still stands. You will miss the spandrelite panels when they're gone from the dry cleaners, but you won't miss this.

Posted by: bbcrock | November 26, 2008 9:42 AM

I wonder who empowered preservationists to decide that a church should give up its sacred worship space to be used as a nightclub, art gallery, or restaurant? Some of the proposals trotted out at the Mayor's Agent hearing, albeit well-intentioned, were absurdly unrealistic. I'm sure the architects and engineers retained by preservationists enjoyed creating their fanciful renderings of cantilevered office space and various enclosures to maximize the Church's lot use while retaining the concrete while elephant.

I also question the Church's representatives who testified to a lengthy and deliberative process that resulted in the building that now occupies the corner at 16th and I Streets. According to the 2008 Church, the building does not communicate the institution's mission nor has it satisfied the congregation from day one. Church members testified that the organization fired its first architect before settling on the Pei firm who ultimately designed the building there now. So let me see if I understand it: Christian Science ideology has changed since ca. 1968-1971 in such a way that a building designed and constructed then expressed the Church's mission and identity but that same building no longer communicates that message in 2008? Also, if the Church was so dissatisfied with the architect's design, why didn't it fire the second firm and find an architect to design a building that pleased them? Should they now be suing Pei for architectural malpractice?

Arguments made by both sides defy logic. Preservationists would alter the character-defining Brutalist features by adding windows and doors to the blank minimalist facade? The Church has one alternative and one alternative alone to remaining viable? Come on.

If the building is so critical to Washington's patrimony, then preservationists should buy out the Third Church and use the building as they see fit while also relocating the Church to a suitable property within its six-block desired area. If the Church (the organization) is so significant to DC's character, then let the group raze its albatross and preserve the building in photos, drawings, and video. Put these in a museum and library and let future generations appreciate them and learn from them. I cringe at the wealth wasted in these proceedings. The sum of the attorneys, architects, and others in the Mayor's Agent hearing room in billable hours is a mind boggling display of waste in a time of great economic uncertainty.

Posted by: Ratman | November 26, 2008 9:53 AM

Interesting. I wonder if the fines for leveling the building would have been $100K. They could have pulled a "Baltimore Colts", moved out during the night and flattened the place before the judges woke up in the morning and issued a stop demolition order. They could have called it an extension of the Brutalism – from cradle to grave.

We have had many a man worshipping in pill-boxes during the wars to keep this country free. I bet they didn’t want their families doing it too.

Posted by: SoMD1 | November 26, 2008 10:03 AM

First, let's put the 1st Amendment issue to rest here. No one seriously believes that the Catholic Church would be allowed to tear down St. Patrick's in Manhattan, or that the Episcopalians could tear down the National Cathedral just because they're having trouble paying the bills. Nor could St. John's Episcopal Parish, if it so chose, tear down its gem of a church directly across the street from the Christian Science church. The First Amendment would provide no barrier to the government protecting those landmarks.

The sole issue here is architectural merit. Aside from my personal opinion about the ugliness of the church, I have no expertise and am to some degree deferential to the unanimous nature of the preservation vote.

One other point: There is not exactly a residential community around 16th & I Streets. One may fairly conclude that the Christian Science folks put their church there because they wanted a highly prominent, visible, prestigious location for it. With that location comes some obligations and restrictions, including extra sensitivity to landmarks preservation. That's life in the big city for everyone, no exception for churches.

Posted by: Meridian1 | November 26, 2008 12:12 PM

I would like to correct Mr. Fisher's blog by stating that DCPL's attorney's and its consultants that testified in opposition to the raze permit did so on a pro-bono basis.

Thank you.

Posted by: DCPL | November 26, 2008 12:42 PM

Meridian1 says "let's put the First Amendment issue to rest here."

Not on your life, pal. The DCPL applied to landmark this church when it was only 19 years old. It's not historic, it's still only 37 years old. And no one will ever confuse it with St John's or the National Cathedral. That's a false comparison, and an infantile argument.

The congregation's rights are protected under a federal religious land use law that states that religious land use is an extension of the First Amendment free exercise of religion, and no state or local government may impose any undue burden without first showing a compelling public interest. And even then, any burden or restriction must be the least possible.
Where's the compelling interest? Well???

DCPL is so concerned about this law that, in their filing, they actually said it may or may not apply in the District of Columbia.

So, when you say, "let's put the the First Amendment issue to rest here," I guess you agree with DCPL that we in this city don't have or deserve the same religious civil rights as folks in the 50 United States.

By the way, I found it revealing that the preservationists suggest renting out the Church or putting in a restaurant or some kind of nightclub. With that kind of imagination, I'm surprised they didn't also suggest an X-rated all-male movie house to replace those torn down to make room for the stadium. I mean, when you're insulting and defiling a church, why stop with a nightclub?

Posted by: observer9 | November 26, 2008 1:55 PM

This shouldn't even be a question of religious freedom. This should be a simple case of property rights. Property owners (yes even if they own Washington Cathedral) should be able to do with their property whatever they like. History is not so all fired important that it should be allowed to stand in the way of the future or even the present. These historical preservation boards effectively deprive property owners of control over their own property. And they do so without incurring any responsibility for the financial costs and burdens imposed upon the owners by their decisions. Historical preservation should only be considered for the most significant structures and even then the government should be forced to purchase the property at the pleasure of the private owner or compensate that owner with comparable property.

It also should not matter what the original congregation wanted when they had the building constructed. All that should be required is that the current congregation does not feel the building suits their needs. Should you, as a home owner, be prevented from tearing down your colonial house and building a new ranch style house because the original owners chose a colonial? Never mind that your wife has MS and cannot negotiate the stairs any more. No, since the original house was a colonial that is what belongs on your land andyou have to put in an elevator to enable your wife to use her home.

Ridiculous huh? Well this church's plight could be your's if you chose to move into a "historic district" or your property is designated to be in a "historic district" at some point in the future.

Posted by: wildfyre99 | November 26, 2008 1:56 PM

This church should be allowed to do what it wants to with the building that it owns. The DCPL should not be given that much power. They really should be disbanded. I say this not because I am against preserving art but in the interest of preserving ownership rights.

Posted by: scrappyc20001 | November 26, 2008 2:11 PM

Zoning laws and planning strictures already place "burdens" on property owners, so the whole "property rights" mantra that anti-preservationists spew simply is a red herring.

The question in my mind is two-fold. One is the issue that Ms. Tregoning is weighing, according to the blog, and the other has to do with the question of maximizing "good urbanism". Locking this building in as is does nothing to improve the urban fabric in perpetuity.

Posted by: LukasWP | November 26, 2008 2:26 PM

Funny thing is that they fight so hard to keep that lump of rock sitting there, but yet the Blaine Mansion has been allowed to be gutted, beaten and annexed.

Maybe they just weren't paying attention. Or maybe saving the building made out of Quik-Crete was the first priority.

Posted by: gmart68b | November 26, 2008 2:33 PM

observer9 said:

"The DCPL applied to landmark this church when it was only 19 years old. It's not historic, it's still only 37 years old. And no one will ever confuse it with St John's or the National Cathedral. That's a false comparison, and an infantile argument."

(a) why do you assume 'historic' = 'old'? are we not referring to this coming January 20th as 'historic'? ... and it hasn't even occurred?

(b) personally, I think it is a far far better building than St. John's ... churches like St. John's are a dime a dozen in any New England state and even as close by as neighboring Maryland.

There's nothing special about St. John's other than that it happens to be near the White House. On the other hand, the 3rd Church truely IS special and would be so placed anywhere in the country .. or the world for that matter.

But you obviously don't agree because you and I have different tastes ... And that is why historic preservation has nothing to do with "do we like what it looks like." Get 10 people in a room and there will be 10 different ideas of what is "perfection". Historic preservation is based on other factors such as whether it is connected to historic (i.e., important) events such as is the case with St. John's, or whether it is best representative of its style and award winning as is the case with the 3rd Church. This is to ensure you end up saving buildings that are special due to more than just "beauty" as defined by the popular vote of today.

It sounds like what was playing out at that hearing yesterday was 'mob mentality'. One person said "it's ugly" and a whole flock of "me too's" joined in on the fun.

Posted by: JohnSmith7 | November 26, 2008 4:50 PM

I got no dog in this hunt, but if this church wins on 'freedom of religion' grounds I'll go out and have my property declared a church. DC Zoning laws pretty much guarantee you can have a church in any zoning, including residential.

Then I'll make all the modifications I want to it.

Churches should have to play by the same rules as the rest of us.

Posted by: HillMan | November 26, 2008 7:16 PM

Let's not forget that this church is paying nothing in local property tax. Yet it gets local fire and police protection, road and street light maintenance, etc.

Quite the deal they get here. They pay nothing for city services the rest of us have to pay for, them they claim 'special rights' when it comes to historic and zoning laws.

Posted by: HillMan | November 26, 2008 7:19 PM

The CHURCH gets none of those benefits Hillman. Police and Fire protection and infrastructure maintenance are things provided to the taxpaying congegants and which extend to all property within the jurisdiction. Would you let the national Cathedral burn down because no property taxes are paid on it? Would you have a church burn down and have it take several surrounding structures with it?

The roads and streets are owned in common by the local citizens. Would you have the street light in front of the church turned off, or allow the street to erode just because no property taxes are paid by the church? This would affect more than just the adjacent church.

Just to clarify... I do not attend any church or subscribe to any organized religion. I do firmly believe in the right of property owners to make reasonable and lawful use of their property. Tearing down an existing building and erecting a new one is one of those rights!

Posted by: wildfyre99 | November 27, 2008 8:50 AM

I find it hard to believe that the Christian Science Mother Church in Boston isn't behind the whole Third Church issue, since The Mother Church is the major winner if Third is torn down. It will collect millions because the land and the joining office building belong, not to Third, but to Boston. If Third gives up its lease on the land, The Mother Church is free to sell the entire site to the office-building developer for millions. I'm surprised no one has researched this issue and posted something among the many blogs about Third. Also, I can't see how Third will finance tearing down the building and constructing a new one in its place, as the very small membership, which doesn't live in the area, has been implying. Where will that money come from since Third doesn't have either the funds or the congregation? There's a lot hidden about this whole issue that ought to be revealed.

Posted by: winston2 | November 27, 2008 1:24 PM

Wow, that thing is hideous! And I didn't have to attend a meeting to think that.

If I were the church leaders I would organize round-the-clock prayer sessions to beseech God for a small, local earthquake in the middle of the night.

Posted by: squiddy1 | November 28, 2008 9:25 AM

"The CHURCH gets none of those benefits Hillman. Police and Fire protection and infrastructure maintenance are things provided to the taxpaying congegants and which extend to all property within the jurisdiction."

Nonsense. Taxpaying congregants pay for city services on their own homes, not on the church.

Other downtown businesses pay a real estate tax on the business downtown.

The church gets a break simply because it's a church.

Hence it's my tax dollars that have to stretch further to cover their tax break.

Posted by: HillMan | November 28, 2008 9:54 AM

This is one building in Washington that deserves to be torn down. There are so many historic buildings that have been torn down over the years that there is no reason this can not join the list, especially as ONLY the preservationists seem to like it.

I mostly agree with squiddy1 that the church leaders should organize round-the-clock prayer sessions. I would, however, pray that they be allowed to tear down the bunker and rebuild something more suitable rather than a localized earthquake as that might damage other buildings in the area.

Posted by: arkelk | November 28, 2008 11:31 AM

The historic designation should be very narrowly interpreted and, frankly, should have some touchstone to what's unique about DC. No one cares about the place, barely notices it's there .. it's City of Angels at best. While a few folks deeply steeped in art history might see something uniquely and historically modern about the church there is just no argument that can be made that the loss of it would have any real impact the people who now or later will makeup or visit the DC area. In addition, the commission should be fair. The building frenzy in DC for the last 8 years has pretty much rehabed or torn down every structured from the 60s/70s .. easily identifiable as representative of their eras. Why then pick on this church? If I were them, I'd paint the think a hot pink just to annoy the living daylights out of everyone around it. The city wants' to preserve 'groovy' architecture .. maybe even through in some paisley.

Posted by: tslats | November 28, 2008 12:30 PM

Here's a win-win situation for everybody.

Let the preservationists buy the church if they want that monstrosity so badly.

And let Third Church merge with First Church in Adams Morgan. That congregation owns a huge, more church-like building that's currently going unused due to the sharply declining membership numbers in the entire Christian Science religion. Second Church's membership is so tiny that it now meets in its adjacent Reading Room instead.

Aside from sheer human pride, I see no reason why Third Church should spend the its scarce financial resources on zoning fights and possible new construction when they could simply shut down and give the now-deserted (and considerably less hideous) First Church a reason to reopen its doors.

Posted by: mblasen | November 28, 2008 4:52 PM

Sell that heap to the French so they can complete their set -- it's called the Maginot Line.


Posted by: MikeLicht | November 28, 2008 11:54 PM

I've had chickens and goats as pets for most of my life, but the current zoning laws don't allow "farm animals" where I live along Rock Creek.

If I declare my house to be a religious property, can I circumvent those laws? It wouldn't matter if the run-off of manure and chemicals contaminated the creek, that's just a necessary consequence of protecting my 1st Amendment rights (which I interpret as: My right to physically express the practices of my religion supersedes all laws, including those regarding personal safety or environmental protection).

Posted by: sacomment | December 2, 2008 1:41 PM

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