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Then and Now: Third Church

Click on an image to enlarge.

Then (left): The home occupied by Justice Horace Gray. Gray was on the Supreme Court from 1882 to 1902. This structure later became the location of a Christian Science Reading Room.

Now (right): The Brutalist Third Church of Christ, Scientist. The church was built in 1971. Since opening, the building has not been well suited for the church, which has experienced declining attendance at its services. It currently has received the green light for demolition.

Thanks to reader Sean for the suggestion.

Kent Boese posts items of historic interest primarily within the District. He's worked in libraries since 1994, both federal and law, and currently works on K Street. He's been an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner serving the northern Columbia Heights and Park View neighborhoods since 2011 (ANC 1A), and is the force behind the blog Park View, D.C.


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Kent: No matter how much you dislike brutalism, you can hardly fault its design for declining church attendance. A Google search for "declining church attendance" provided ample support for my supposition that we have been witnessing declining church attendance for some time, regardless of architectural style.

by Eric H. on May 29, 2009 3:47 pm • linkreport

After seeing what it replaced, man that hurts. A pile of poured in place concrete replacing a most DC combo of Richardsonian rhythm and Chesapeake chimneys shows the depths the architectural profession fell to. And it's not so much about disliking brutalism or modernism per say as much as how much that architecture dislikes you.

by Thayer-D on May 29, 2009 4:00 pm • linkreport

@Eric H. - i had the same reaction as you on my initial read of Kent's post, but on reflection i think it's just an unfortunate juxtaposition of two unrelated things. at least, i hope it is, because if not it's a ridiculous assertion.

by AJ on May 29, 2009 4:06 pm • linkreport

Even the Nazis at their bunker building best tempo couldn't come up with something so abysmally ugly. At least they took the trouble to hire sculptors to emblazon their concrete structures with eagles and other incunabula. Brutalism totally ignores the other art fields which real architecture cannot do without- at the risk of being too isolated in the aesthetic sense.You can only take away so much when attempting to "purify" your materials and expression- and then it becomes merely an abstruse exercise that plainly has more to do with theories than creating a work of beauty and grace that people can actually live with , w/o being tempted to committ suicide from all of the institutional blandness.

That is what this piece of sh*t really is- a developer's vision of a kind of cold war , bland reality , where people do not really care since the ICBMs could appear over the horizon at a moment's notice- so why bother to invest time and energy in anything of real value ? This garbage way of thinking comes about when those in charge of tastemaking decree an end to art, and it is emblematic of an age when all individuality , humor, color, ornament, eccentricity ,locality, dissident behavior, and grace are left to the dogs.

Demolish this damn eyesore NOW.

by w on May 29, 2009 4:14 pm • linkreport

Kent, Why not post a picture of the front of the Third Church ... rather than its back side? Are you maybe afraid that you may not have as many readers agreeing with your one-sided assessment of the church's aesthetics? The front side has a beautiful plaza open to the street ... and isn't encumbered with that not-so-appropriate monstrously sized poster hanging from it. Incidentally, until approached by a developer a few years back, the congregation thought the church building was just fine ... It even said so in its website where it extolled the architectural pedigree of the building and its appropriateness for the church's functions. Funny how dollar signs can change a dying congregation's perspectives.

by Lance on May 29, 2009 5:34 pm • linkreport

Isn't that the side of the building facing the most prominent corner? If so, that makes it the front regardless of what the architect had in mind.

by BeyondDC on May 29, 2009 6:18 pm • linkreport

So it'll be replaced by more bland office towers like those behind it ?

People wonder why no one risks significant architecture in DC. Here's your answer.

by Tom Coumaris on May 29, 2009 8:36 pm • linkreport

Preservationists need to focus more on the preservation of noteworthy and well-liked spaces and experiences, rather than trying to assemble an outdoor museum of architectural examples under their protection. The Third Church IS a fairly good example of Brutalism, but it doesn't contribute anything functional or beautiful to the streetscape, so why save it? Perhaps the best solution, and use of resources, would be to repurpose the church as the core of a new building surrounding it, one that's built up to the lot line and gives the corner some vitality.

Lance- The reason that view is used is because it is taken from the same vantage point as the older photo, so one can make an apples to apples comparison.

by merarch on May 30, 2009 2:20 am • linkreport

w, I lived in worked in a couple Stalinist buildings, and I'd rather live in a mud hut or a project than repeat that experience. The rooms were comfortable and high-ceilinged, but the process of entering and exiting a totalitarian building is a cruel and degrading experience in which the average person is beaten down by the ideological ornament and laughed at by the cruelly overscaled proportions.

You may think the 3rd Church is ugly, and it doesn't have a good street approach, but don't even think this compares to the perverseness of a building that is also an instrument of power.

by цarьchitect on May 30, 2009 2:41 am • linkreport


That is easy to suggest, but the preservation law simply doesn't allow what you suggest. Just this week, the Capitol Hill community brought forth a landmark application for Meads Row on H Street next to the Atlas Theater. While these were once nice row houses on an important corridor, they simply didn't, in the opinion of staff or the board, rise to the level of landmark status. However, all agreed that saving this set of structures was important to the fabric of H Street.

How does one proceed, then?

by William on May 30, 2009 6:55 am • linkreport

Preservationists need to focus more on the preservation of noteworthy and well-liked spaces and experiences, rather than trying to assemble an outdoor museum of architectural examples under their protection. The Third Church IS a fairly good example of Brutalism, but it doesn't contribute anything functional or beautiful to the streetscape, so why save it?
I worked in one of the many nondescript office buildings on I Street, and your characterization of the church is something I do not agree with. I always looked at it on my way home, my eyes rested on it as something different to see. Perhaps seeing it everyday is the difference, I don't know.

by Jazzy on May 30, 2009 7:41 am • linkreport

I still contend all the critics haven't been inside the church. I have. It's one of the most spiritual, peaceful and contemplative spaces I've been in. Perfect for spiritual reflection. Part of the success is the much derided windowless concrete: when inside you can't hear a single outside sound. That's no small feat considering the busy intersection it's on.

by crin on May 30, 2009 7:44 am • linkreport

Crin - exactly.

by Jazzy on May 30, 2009 8:44 am • linkreport

The problem here is the with the congregation --- the so-called stewards of the church. It's a dying and aging congregation with only 35 members ... and this is a prime piece of downtown real estate. No matter how many times the collection plate goes around on Sunday or how many bake sales they stage, there's no way they'll ever be able to keep up any structure on this site. Razing this structure in the hopes that what the developer will pay them for that prime corner is a last desperate measure that in the end will leave us all poorer. Wouldn't it have been more dignified if they'd instead left the community with the gift of that special building in that special place? Surely there must be some other group that can afford that corner ... other than the bureacracy that fills bland office buildings.

by Lance on May 30, 2009 10:59 am • linkreport

I really hate the position that this building objectively fails to (in the words of merarch, above) "contribute anything functional or beautiful to the streetscape." That is an opinion. In my opinion, the open space / plaza open to 16th street offers something functional (certainly more functional than the empty front entrances to any number of office buildings that it borders). Moreover, like Jazzy, I actually like to look at the building. I'm sorry not everyone can agree on the aesthetic quality of this building, but I really hate that the anti-Third Church crowd acts as though it isn't possible to find the structure, dare I say it, beautiful.

Finally, I sometimes feel like I'm chasing my tail with the aesthetic police on these blogs. Just the other day, Beyond DC posted a reaction to some commentary at a forum the other day that suggested DC didn't have much in the way of design excellence going on. Whether you agree or not, Beyond DC took the position that some of the architecture in the 1990s is better than the current neo-modern glass boxes that are being constructed.

Fine. But if we tear this building down we will get rid of a unique piece of architecture and replace it with one of the generic glass boxes that Beyond DC hates.

What I like about the Third Church is that it provides a very needed glimpse of variation in an otherwise very homogeneous city. I realize many of you don't like the design. Some of us do. But I think it is unfortunate (and frankly elitist) to advocate using the historic preservation as a way to maintain the stuff we like now and get rid of the stuff we don't like now. Why the heck do we need to preserve something everyone agrees is awesome?

by Eric H. on May 30, 2009 2:16 pm • linkreport

@ William-

It's a shame that the current preservation law can't be applied to Mead's Row; I definitely think the row is worthy of some kind of preservation based on the contribution to the streetscape. However, I agree with the preservation board in that there isn't anything exceptional about Mead's Row vs. it's peers to warrant preservation. They're simply well built, well detailed townhouses typical of what was put up in DC in the 1890s. Perhaps it's time to amend the laws to consider streetscapes and "outdoor rooms" more thoroughly. On the whole, the 1300 block of H Street deserves some kind of preservation because of the historical narrative it tells AND the sensibility it shows to pedestrians.

@ Jazzy,

I agree that the church by itself has aesthetic merit, but it doesn't contribute much to the overall City Beautiful/Beaux-Arts vision of 16th St NW....not that hopeful that it's replacement will either.

I think the biggest issue with preservation since WW2 is that we know we won't get something as good once something old is torn down. Maybe if architects and developers look to the past a little more, we won't mourn the past quite so much.

by merarch on May 30, 2009 2:59 pm • linkreport

"Lance- The reason that view is used is because it is taken from the same vantage point as the older photo, so one can make an apples to apples comparison."

merarch, The predecessor building faced "Eye" Street. The Third Church faces the more prominent 16th Street. And apples to apples comparison would be a comparison of front to front or back to back. A comparison of front (predecessor building) to back (Third Church) is an apples to oranges comparison.

by Lance on May 30, 2009 3:15 pm • linkreport

The real problem here has nothing to do with how the building looks at all. The building's appearance or style really shouldn't be anyone's concern on this message board unless there's a church member present here. The real concern is that a living, breathing, non- business oriented community is dying out in the core of the old city and the church building that represents that community will disappear with it. The segregation of our living/ working places are becoming more and more pronounced. So much for "gentrification" or "downtown revitalization."

by DC on May 30, 2009 7:32 pm • linkreport

"The segregation of our living/ working places are becoming more and more pronounced. So much for "gentrification" or "downtown revitalization."

Honestly, I don't think your fears are any longer justified. Yes, you could have made a case that during the 20th century our working places were becoming increasingly more segregated from our living places, but the complete opposite is occuring now. More and more of us rarely, if ever, need to step into our offices. Everything can (and is) increasingly being done from the comfort of one's laptop in the home ... or in the local coffee shop. The office has gone virtual. I know in my case I often work with people scattered throughout the country (and sometimes the world) who I will never meet in person. Time Magazine recently had a front page story on this growing change. Go by any coffee shop in DC and you'll see what I mean. Think about all the times you've called someone from some company and they picked up the phone and said 'good day' in an Indian accent. This seismic change will within 10 years time (or less) completely erase the segregation you fear.

I tend to think it's just that the life cycle of our 'business machinery' has reached the mature stage of its life cycle. When our business machinery was young ... and it consisted of telephone, telegraph, women in typing pools, etc., it had the limitation of having to be concentrated ... and the professional workforce with it ... both physically (i.e.., the office space) and time-wise (i.e., the 9 - 5 day.) Our business machinery (i.e., the laptops, Blackberries, cell phones) of today have advanced to where they no longer place those same limitations on how business must be conducted ... And we are returning to the situation that existed before ... i.e., working where you live ... because we can. This will of course have tremendous impacts on everything from how cities grow (e.g., will 16th and Eye really need another office building now that there is far less of a need for office buildings?) to what kind of transport we use (e.g., what good is mass transit oriented towards commuters ... if there aren't many commuters left?)

Now a small, architecturally historically significant church building near the White House is something we more likely will need going forward.

Just some thoughts ...

by Lance on May 31, 2009 9:34 am • linkreport

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