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D.C. Lets Church Tear Down Brutalist Atrocity

In the eternal battle between the people who live in the city and an arrogant elite who think they know better, score one for the people: Mayor Adrian Fenty's representative yesterday sided decisively with members of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, ruling that they must be allowed to worship in the church building of their own choice, despite efforts by historic preservationists to landmark the much-loathed structure.

D.C. planning director Harriet Tregoning has ruled that historic preservation zealots trying to force the church to keep its concrete bunker of a building on 16th Street NW near the White House were wrong and that the city must grant the church a permit to demolish its faceless, spiritually deadening 1971 building so that the church's members can afford to build a new downtown church more suited to expressing and celebrating their religious faith.

"The Mayor's Agent finds that the denial of the [demolition] permit would result in the inevitable demise of the Third Church as a downtown congregation, and therefore concludes that the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs may consider the demolition permit application cleared for historic preservation purposes," Tregoning wrote in her long-awaited decision on the church's appeal of a pro-landmark ruling by the city's historic preservation board.

Tregoning concludes that the Third Church's building, designed in a burst of 1960s passion for the avant-garde, was an "experiment" that "failed badly."

The building, she says, needs expensive repairs, is too often too hot or too cold, and wouldn't lend itself to reuse with a different function. Meanwhile, Tregoning concludes, the church is losing money and "faces a dire financial situation likely to cause its demise within eight years or less"--even before taking on the massive costs of the much-needed repairs and improvements.

The solution, Tregoning finds, is the one the church itself has proposed: Tear down the church and let a developer put up an office building in its place. The church has made a tentative deal along those lines, under which the Christian Scientists would get a new church building elsewhere.

Although many hours of testimony in the hearings before Tregoning centered on the church's claim that the District government has no right to tell a religious institution what kind of building it must have, the mayor's agent steered clear of any discussion of First Amendment rights, limiting herself to the economic burden the church would face if forced to hold onto a landmarked building.

On that point, Tregoning accepted the church's argument entirely:

"The Church has little or no collateral to use to finance the extraordinary repairs needed and its members have no interest in paying for measures that would not meaningfully contribute to their worship experience," she writes. "Nor can the Church walk away. While some congregations may freely move their location without losing their identity, that is not the case here. Throughout its history, this congregation has manifested an unwavering intent to remain where it is. Its location is its mission. To leave the area it has served since 1918 would be tantamount to its destruction. Yet, to remain in its present building would have the same result."

Tregoning was clearly taken with the testimony of church members who spoke about their commitment to keeping their church downtown and to finding a new home that could be more comfortable, more readily identified as a church building, and more suited to the life of the spirit.
She rejected half-baked proposals by preservationists who suggested that the Christian Science church could be converted into a restaurant, museum or gallery.

"The Mayors Agent must construe the statute so as to avoid absurd results," Tregoning writes, "since the literal meaning of a statute will not be followed when it produces absurd results. ....Although the Church's present predicament results from design choices it agreed to, albeit reluctantly, those choices were made in the hope of achieving breakthrough architecture. To force this congregation to live with, and almost certainly die as a result of the failure of its experiment would dissuade others from choosing the novel over the mundane."

Tregoning ordered that the church not be demolished until the Christian Scientists have an approved plan for a replacement church building.

The bulldozing of the Third Church will be a huge victory for common sense and for the rights of property owners against a small band of preservation extremists. Historic preservation is a good and essential process that helps to salvage and maintain important symbols of our history, but when preservation rules are abused and rewritten to support efforts to freeze the city in its current shape, without regard to cost or the lives and livelihoods of residents, it's time for a rebalancing of priorities and policies. Tregoning has taken an important step in that direction. And don't worry--Washington still has more than its share of Brutalist architecture, most notably the ghastly FBI headquarters and the strangely mesmerizing Forrestal Building, which houses the Energy Department.

By Marc Fisher |  May 13, 2009; 7:30 AM ET  | Category:  City life , Development , Historic preservation , The District
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How can anyone even look at K St., or Mass Ave., or what used to be Southwest and the Navy Yard, and even pretend that this city is close to being "frozen in its current shape"?

Posted by: mquad | May 13, 2009 8:06 AM

The ghastly FBI headquarters has to be the ugliest government building anywhere. The cement courtyard is just the final touch of hideousness.

Posted by: wiredog | May 13, 2009 8:16 AM

As usual, you take the low road. The easy road. That which will get you the oohs and ahs ... You definitely are the Jerry Springer of The Post.

I find it hard to believe you can really be such a simpleton that you don't see how preservation isn't about preserving what people here and now "don't like" but about preserving that which when lost will be a tragedy for us all over the long run. But then again, perhaps you aren't capable of recognizing a treasure. I mean look at Jerry Springer and his show ... And your usual "lowest of the low" view on just about anything you cover.

Posted by: JohnSmith7 | May 13, 2009 8:46 AM

Score one for common sense.

Posted by: hoos3014 | May 13, 2009 9:09 AM

Amen!!! A rare win for common sense over the absurdity of the preservationist zealots. P.S. Bizarre post from bitter JohnSmith7 should be ignored.

Posted by: RBSamuelson | May 13, 2009 9:12 AM

Don't forget about that beautiful historically designated building called the DC armory. We'll never get rid of that one.

Posted by: dude7 | May 13, 2009 9:14 AM

JohnSmith7: I'm not much of a fan of Fisher's either, and I agree with the bulk of your sentiment. However, where do you draw the line between "preservation" and "let's never change anything at all in this city?" I mean, one could argue that if we had that preservationist mindset in the 1700s, we'd have all the same shacks and huts that we did then.

Posted by: Section406 | May 13, 2009 9:35 AM

As a native Bostonian who lives in the country's largest neighborhood of Victorian-era townhouses, I am a solid supporter of historic preservation. But it really does have to make sense taking everything into consideration. And if preservation of an aptly-named Brutalist-style building is going to drive the church that owns it out of business (and who else, then, would adopt such an horrid building?), it makes no sense.

As Mr. Fisher points out, there ARE other examples of Brutalist-style architecture abounding in D.C., a couple of which are actually functional. If people want to see Brutalist-style Christian Science Church-related architecture, they can visit the Mother Church site in Boston, designed by I.M. Pei. Unfortunately, although it is very good for what it is, for whatever reason there are very few pictures readily available.

Posted by: ProbablyNot | May 13, 2009 10:06 AM

jsmith7: What tragedy will be created if this building doesn't exist? Are there no other examples of this style in the area?

In Northern Virginia, there are those who claim that every patch of ground where Robert E. Lee's horse took a dump is sacred. I'm fine with historic preservation, but it's not the only value out there. This church's mission is threatened, and it's THEIR BUILDING. The decision looks pretty reasonable to me. The church made a mistake in 1971; are they stuck with it forever?

Posted by: mdean3 | May 13, 2009 10:12 AM

Add to the FBI Building the Department of State Hive-Headquarters and the Kennedy Center that has tried and failed to resemble the Lincoln Memorial.

Both State and KenCen--demolition-ready.

Posted by: rollomoss2 | May 13, 2009 10:27 AM

Oh, Mr. Fischer, please let us know what your real feelings are because they are so well cloaked behind the veil of journalistic objectivity…

While you are congratulating the Mayor for employing “common sense” during your rant, you conveniently omit –or overlook – the fact that the decision was purely political. The Mayor’s office overturned the Historic Preservation Review Board decision because the City was sure to lose a lawsuit brought (or sure to be brought) by the Church under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (42 USC s.2000cc). That was the real common sense decision.

My own feelings aside (I personally find Breuer’s HUD Building and the Metro to be more significant Brutalist structures in the City), one simply cannot claim that this Church is not a significant piece of architecture. And the shortcomings of its utility, while unfortunate, are inapposite to its historicity. The owners of the Villa Savoye sued Le Corbusier because the roof leaked, should we also tear down that building?

Although the Brutalist movement may have fallen out of favor at present, it may yet again become vogue. Your own aesthetic myopia should not be the final judge as to which structures survive and which do not.

Posted by: mberg1 | May 13, 2009 10:32 AM

Section406, Who ever said anything about "let's never change anything at all in this city"? Of course things must change. It's just that you don't tear down the best of the best to do so. This church building has won acclaim from architects and other knowledgeable individuals from around the nation. It has won architectural prizes and is considered one of the finest examples of the brutlist style (i.e., construction out of raw contcrete) in the nation. ("Brut" is French for "raw" ... Of course you won't have Marc Fisher explaining that to you ... it would call for being truthful rather than playing with your readers emotions with untruths.)

And btw, it is the ONLY landmarked brutalist building in the city. (I actually don't even know of other brutalist structures in the District unless you count the Metro stations.) The FBI building, etc. are NOT brutalist structures. They are NOT constructed of raw concrete. (Google the criteria for brutalist construction if you doubt me.)

And the architects and other knowledgeable experts aren't the only ones to think this building is special. The very same people who now are asking permission to destroy the building thought so too ... until a developer with deep pockets approached them. Their website spoke about the wonderfulness of the building and its applicability to their mission ... and was actually still up until someone pointed out how incongrous that was with what they were saying AFTER being offered mega-bucks for the land site.

Posted by: JohnSmith7 | May 13, 2009 10:42 AM

How can a structure built in the 1970s that has no historic significance be considered a landmark? The purpose of a building is to serve the occupants and owners and this building wasn't serving anyone. Maybe the reason it is one of the only examples of brutalist architecture in Washington is because the style is loathed and no one cares to see it continued. Just because something existed once doesn't mean it has to exist for eternity.

Posted by: buffysummers | May 13, 2009 11:04 AM

Is there ANY WAY we can get rid of the FBI Building? It's is incredibly awful-looking. I try not to look at it.

Posted by: swissmiss150 | May 13, 2009 11:09 AM

I was walking past the church one day and a guy in front of me exclaimed, "It's a goddamn Hitler bunker!" Pretty good description.

Posted by: georgieporgie1 | May 13, 2009 11:11 AM

Once again Marc Fisher traffics in the oldest clichés about preservationists. Regardless of what anyone’s particular views are on this building are, Fisher once again stoops to such ignorant descriptions of the “preservation elite” and the assumption that preservationists want the city “frozen in its current state,” which are completely false in the face of the incredible positive growth that has taken place in the District in recent years, including development in historic districts. Why make such a sweeping generalization about ALL preservationists and the ENTIRE city based on the view of SOME preservationists about ONE building? It's ignorant, prejudiced, and unnecessarily divisive.

Posted by: kimoco | May 13, 2009 11:12 AM

The city made the right decision here, and was wise to focus on the economic specific of the situation and not articulate a broader rule -- especially one based on the First Amendment -- that could impede efforts to save other more worthy structures.

A First Amendment based ruling would have made it difficult to save ANY church -- evenSt. Matthews, or the National Cathedral.

This narrowly reasoned ruling makes sense to me and does not threaten preservation overall. I am satisfied with the result, though I hope whatever building replaces it is worthy of the prominent location and respectful of its surroundings.

Posted by: Meridian1 | May 13, 2009 11:30 AM

"Oh, Mr. Fischer, please let us know what your real feelings are because they are so well cloaked behind the veil of journalistic objectivity…"

You do know that Fisher is a columnist who is paid to express his opinions and feelings?

Posted by: ArlingtonVA3 | May 13, 2009 11:34 AM

I'm going to take the middle on this one, I agree with the decision but ever since this became a controversy, I've looked at the building at 16th st many times b/c I work in the area and I've really come to like it. But buildings are building sand even though they may have some work of art type elements, once they stop serving their masters, they cease to fulfill their primary function and can be replaced. Moreover, if a building can be imposed on its owners through an historic designation, wouldn't that only discourage owners from using new architecture styles; thus, leaving us with a city of similar looking buildings?

Posted by: ron525i | May 13, 2009 11:38 AM

"Once again Marc Fisher traffics in the oldest clichés about preservationists."

No, Marc Fisher is right. For anyone who has lived in this city of any amount of time, it's hard to take them seriously. They get so wrapped up and adversarial about everything, so "lawyered up." I live in a building that is supposedly a preservationist victory: a low-rise condo on Q Street that was placed their in lieu of a high-rise condo complex in response to a battle waged in the 70s by the nascent Society for Historic Preservation. So you'd think they'd be happy about my building, right?

Nah, they give tours and point to it and say, see how this is not as nice as the other buildings on the block? LOL. They don't mention that the rowhouses which proceeded my condo complex were condemned and had to be replaced anyway, and that they advocated for just this very design that they now critique in their fundraising tours.

Preservation in this city is a fundraising and lawyer-driven business. It's not about us locals, and us locals know it.

Posted by: lacoatrack | May 13, 2009 11:41 AM

The Mayor's Agent - who has been under relentless attack by preservation groups since she took this case - has ruled wisely, although Judge Robertson's comments from the bench gave her no other practical choice.

But the Third Church federal civil rights lawsuit remains as a threat to anyone in the preservationist community who tries to delay demolition.

Now Jack Evans and Vince Gray can finally move forward the bill to allow clean demolition of the building, but it must include a provision to make the church whole for the expenses it incurred over more than a year while Tersh Boasberg and others in the city government blatantly refused to consider their invocation of First Amendment rights.

If there is no remedy, there is nothing to stop Boasberg and his merry band from pulling this same sorry stunt again and forcing some other person or group to spend hundredsw of thousands of dollars to exercise rights guaranteed in the Constitution.

Posted by: observer9 | May 13, 2009 11:42 AM

kimoco- then why do so many preservationists give Fisher's argument weight? Of course, lacking a reasonable argument for the preservation of this unsightly and historically-unimportant church, you resort to complaining that he is making 'sweeping generalizations', though I don't even see him doing that. Clearly, those preservationists who HAVE clamored for the conservation of this building ARE the sort of 'preservationist elite' and 'zealot' ilk that give the whole Preservation movement a horrible and obnoxious name.

Obviously, not everything can or should be preserved, and no, CLEARLY not every preservationist out there wants to keep the city "frozen in its current state", but you're bound to find at least one raising a stink for just about anything. Get a life and butt out of private affairs.

Also, though it may be a highly-regarded architectural style in relevant circles, Brutalism has far too many examples that are an absolute cancer to cities (FBI HQ being a perfect example), and I see no problem in thinning the herd to the few widely-regarded 'quality' buildings. This Christian Scientist church obviously NOT INCLUDED in that few. ;)

Posted by: Comunista | May 13, 2009 11:47 AM

This is an unfortunate decision - too bad the church couldn't be bought out. The building may not be historically significant, but it is architecturally significant. It is a unique building in DC and a Brutalist gem whether opinion deems it ugly or not. Personally, I like its funkiness.

Posted by: pstenigma | May 13, 2009 12:05 PM

Move this dysfunctional heap to exurban Virginia as a tourist attraction: The Maginot Line Experience.


Posted by: MikeLicht | May 13, 2009 12:09 PM

... And btw, it is the ONLY landmarked brutalist building in the city. (I actually don't even know of other brutalist structures in the District unless you count the Metro stations.) The FBI building, etc. are NOT brutalist structures. They are NOT constructed of raw concrete. (Google the criteria for brutalist construction if you doubt me.)...

Posted by: JohnSmith7 | May 13, 2009 10:42 AM

The church is NOT the only brutalist structure in the city. The Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Musuem is a great example of brutalist architecture. (And it seem unlikely to be torn down anytime soon...) And unlike the church, in the case of the Hirshhorn, the form fits the function (modern art showcased in modernist architecture).

Also, brutalist architecture does NOT necessarily require concrete, although it is common...

"Although concrete is the material most widely associated with Brutalist architecture, not all Brutalist buildings are formed from concrete. Instead, a building may achieve its Brutalist quality through a rough, blocky appearance, and the expression of its structural materials, forms, and (in some cases) services on its exterior."

Posted by: snow_crash | May 13, 2009 12:12 PM

Like anything that involves advocacy, there are two sides. People who believe in the cause and those who view it differently. Fisher always focuses on what he views as the bad aspects of preservation in this city and fails to even acknowldge the good work preservationists do - like securing restoration funds for the DC War Memorial - or funds to restore Battleground National Cemetery in Ward 4 - or the $1 million in grants distributed to low and moderate income households in Historic Anacostia last year to help restore their homes.

There will always be controversy in any case - seperate interests and opinions but without preservation Washington would look and feel very different.

Posted by: DCPL | May 13, 2009 12:38 PM

"Now Jack Evans and Vince Gray can finally move forward the bill to allow clean demolition of the building, but it must include a provision to make the church whole for the expenses it incurred over more than a year while Tersh Boasberg and others in the city government blatantly refused to consider their invocation of First Amendment rights."

You don't really think this is the end of the story, do you? Not in the least. The ruling by the Mayor's Agent is actually a victory for the preservationists. It now opens the way for a very long appeals process. And you can be sure that as the appeals go higher up, saner heads will eventually prevail ... knowing full well that allowing this prime example of its style, could open the door for allowing any historical church/temple to be destroyed. Nah, it won't happen. The end result will be that the church will stand ... and Bush era regulations threatening religious historical structures will be weakened ... or done away with totally.

Posted by: JohnSmith7 | May 13, 2009 1:36 PM

I think Mr. Fisher should have at least detailed the position taken by the preservationists in the suit. He's entitled to voice his opinion, but he should enlighten us with his thought process.

There is a lot of grey area not explored.

Was the church motivated by cash and did that motivation outstrip once held feelings about the importance of the architecture? How about a little historical research on the Church's statements about the building. Did they think it was an experiment that failed in 1971, 1981, 1991 and 2001?

Was the City's stance motivated beyond what it stated in the case? What actions had the city taken and what role did they play in the case? Which position did they support?

Were preservationists blind to the merits of the church's position? Were there any other feesible alternatives to demolition offered? Mr. Fisher uses the term "laughable", but keeps his private joke to himself. I don't often laugh just because someone else is laughing. I usually need to hear the joke myself. Perhaps the alternatives were not as profitable, but were they viable and could they have saved the building?

These are all questions I had after reading the article. I think the builidng is ugly too, but I am concerned about the precedent. Perhaps one day my 1865 wood-framed victorian will be considered an ugly failed experiment (my wife actually holds this opinion now after ten years of trying to restore the thing).

As for the economic argument, I know the land under my house is worth more than the structure. If I reasoned that I will not be able to send my children to school and retire and I have barely enough money to miantain my house, I might conclude that I should demolish it and construct a new home so I can realized a higher return on my investment. Does that mean I can act upon this conclusion now?

I'm no prude, (I regularly laugh at hypocritical positions taken by "Hysterical Societies") but I do like to have all the facts. Mr. Fisher didn't provide enough for me and I can't blindly jump on his wagon. I was entertained, but then I remembered; once a building is gone - it's gone.

Posted by: GregHerrick | May 13, 2009 1:39 PM

"The church is NOT the only brutalist structure in the city. The Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Musuem is a great example of brutalist architecture."

I said I think it is the only LANDMARKED brualist structure in the District. It certainly is the only landmarked brutalist church in the District.

Really though, I'm not worried. At the end of the day, this church will be standing for far longer than Mr. Fisher will be blogging.

Posted by: JohnSmith7 | May 13, 2009 1:41 PM

If Mr. Fisher's views are not in favor of preservation perhaps it is due to the historic designation abuses that have occurred in the past.

The entire historic preservation movement should be thankful that this case did not end up in federal court and be decided on the first amendment issue. The outcome of a decision by the court in favor of the church undoubtedly would have far reaching negative consequences for the entire historic preservation movement.

Hopefully local preservationists and the DCRA will take their responsibilities more seriously in the future. The building should not have been designated in the first place. What a waste of time, effort and money.

Posted by: Mikel9 | May 13, 2009 2:09 PM

While, this is supposed to be an op-ed, there's a line you don't cross, and Mr. Fisher crossed it. Please stop stuffing your personal opinions down the readers throat. 90% of the article is extremely biased garbage. I agree that the Church should be able to do whatever it wants, but calling the historic preservation "zealots" "arrogant elitists" is a bit rash.

Posted by: TheMarylander | May 13, 2009 2:56 PM


"the eternal battle between the people who live in the city and an arrogant elite who think they know better".

That might as well be your job description, Marc.

For one, this building should have never been Landmarked (so soon). It should have then never gotten so close to setting a national precedent on Preservation. That said, I have mixed feelings that this case will be coming to a close. I have really looked forward to reading your dilettantish drivel in the defense of the District's common man. As an architectural critic, you're a philistine. As an ideologue, you're schizophrenic. As a journalist, you're the Glen Beck of print.

It's beyond evident that you have a deep, personal aversion to Historic Preservation. That's cool. You're an opinion blogger. But why? Do you really align with the hard-right ultra-conservative/libertarian property rights activists? Is it the cause of protecting the First Amendment? Obviously you're protected by the whole "freedom of the press" part, but you mock the ideas that others have by calling them all "zealots" as though yours is the only valid point of view. Maybe you were spurned as an adolescent by a seductive architectress that broke your heart?

I guess with this settling, you'll be back to writing on the big issues of the day like "Binary Man asks: Ketchup or Catsup?"

Yours truly,
Dwindling Subscriptions

Posted by: sacomment | May 13, 2009 3:25 PM

I think the argument is partly about preservation as a principle but significantly about the aesthetic style known as brutalism. As an example of the disjoint between theory and practice, brutalist buildings ought to be saved when possible, to show the unique austerity of their function-oriented design. But in general, owners and inhabitants of brutalist (and Bauhaus) buildings tend to be the most vocal advocates for their demolition.

Those who praise such buildings rarely live or work in them. The Harvard University Science Center and FBI HQ are two cases in point: architecturally significant but unfriendly workspaces and maintenance-intensive in practice. To call them a "cancer" is maybe a little extreme, but brutalist buildings certainly don't enhance the neighborhoods on which their presence is inflicted.

Posted by: RichWhittington | May 13, 2009 3:42 PM

Humans and their silly tendencies to preserve things as superficial as concrete buildings. I've never understood the whole "historic" preservation movement. Just seems a little childish. So the artsy architecture crowd will have to buy an extra box of tissue over the loss of this beautiful building highly heralded by architects everywhere. Sorta like a government program heralded by those employed by it.

Posted by: permagrin | May 13, 2009 3:44 PM

Thank god. Not only is that place an eyesore to anything with eyes, but it is a victory for commonsense.

I've lived in DC for a couple decades and am always amazed at the obnoxious lengths a vocal few will go in an attempt to make their wants more relevant than the wants of the many. Folks like JonSmith7 have never answered the question as to what would happen to the structure if they had their way? The Church didn't want it, nor could afford it and would have moved out regardless. Its "untouchable" status and odd design would have precluded anyone else wanting or able to buy it and use it for something. If JonSmith7 and his cohorts are so dedicated to the structure, I suggest they offer to buy it from the Church and then they could do what they want with it.

Historic preservation status has become a weapon against any kind of developement what so ever. Once status is conferred, it is nearly impossible to to anything with the structure. I live near a Giant grocery store on Wisconsin Ave. If it has an architectural style, I'd call it "70's, burned out crack house". Seriously, Metro's bus maintenance warehouses have more asthetic appeal than does this place, but when some local nimbys saw they were losing the battle against redevelopment, they ran to the historic preservationists in an attempt to get it historic status which would have stopped any redevelopment. They almost did it too. Thankfully, common sense won out at the 11th hour and they failed.

Posted by: Nosh1 | May 13, 2009 3:53 PM

the same argument should have been used by DCPS. instead of $70M renovations, they should have torn down some buildings and rebuilt for $20-30-40M.

Posted by: oknow1 | May 13, 2009 5:29 PM

"D.C. planning director Harriet Tregoning has ruled that historic preservation zealots...were wrong"

Fact-challenged again, Marc!

She didn't dispute that the church was architecturally significant, which is what the preservationists contended. She ruled that maintaining it was an economic hardship on a congregation with 35 members, a decision not part of the Historic Preservation Review Board process.

Posted by: pedro3 | May 14, 2009 7:58 AM

"She ruled that maintaining it was an economic hardship on a congregation with 35 members, a decision not part of the Historic Preservation Review Board process."

And that's the sad truth. So does that mean that the Catholic diocese can now justify not being able to afford the basilica ... or the Episcopal diocese justify not being able to afford the National Cathedral? Should we be expecting massive teardowns so that valuable land can be sold to developers and the money used to support the Catholic and Epoiscopal faiths? After all, just this year the Catholic diocese had to divest itself of its parochial schools in the District.

There's something wrong with this reasoning ... since isn't the whole idea of historic preservation and landmarking to "save" that worth saving which market forces would otherwise bring down? Aren't we effectively doing away with historic preservation's goals when we re-introduce "the market" into the decision making?

Posted by: JohnSmith7 | May 15, 2009 12:49 PM

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