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
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