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Lost Washington: Church of the Covenant

Churches are one of the biggest challenges for historic preservation. They are such unique structures and so poorly suited to be anything but what they are. What happens when a congregation outgrows its building and wants to move on?

Church of the Covenant. Photo by Jack Rottier used with permission.

In some cases, old churches downtown have been preserved because they were taken over by other religious groups. Several downtown landmarks have survived that way. The Washington Hebrew Synagogue was built in 1898 near 8th and I Streets NW and became the Greater New Hope Baptist Church in 1955.

The Adas Israel Synagogue, built in 1907 at 6th and I, was turned over to the Turner Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1951 before being converted back to a synagogue in 2004. However, such reuse doesn't always pan out.

One of the city's greatest losses in historic religious structures was the old National Presbyterian Church, originally called the Church of the Covenant, which used to rise from the southeast corner of Connecticut Avenue and N Street NW. The building, which James M. Goode has called a "dignified masterpiece in gray granite," was completed in 1889 and torn down in 1966, to be replaced by a nondescript office building.

The church was designed by New York architect J.Cleveland Cady (1837-1919), a devout Presbyterian who is best known for designing part of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

For this building, Cady adopted the Romanesque Revival style popular in the late Victorian era, replete with heavy rounded arches and rough-cut stone facing. H. H. Richardson's celebrated Allegheny County Courthouse had just been completed in Pittsburgh in 1886, and it clearly influenced both this building and W.J. Edbrooke's grand Post Office Department building on Pennsylvania Avenue, another great DC landmark in this style.

In the early 1880s, members of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church near the White House had decided they needed to reach out to the far northwest part of the city (i.e., around Dupont Circle) to keep up with the wealthy "top hats" that increasingly were moving out to that wealthy suburb. They founded the Church of the Covenant in 1883 and built a small chapel on N Street in 1884.

Construction of the main church began in 1887 and was nearly complete when the 158-foot Ohio-sandstone tower suddenly collapsed into a heap of rubble early on the morning of August 22, 1888. Cady's Washington representative, Robert I. Fleming, had been on hand the day before to inspect construction progress and realized the tower was in jeopardy when a large crack appeared in one wall.

Fleming ordered the site watchman, Thomas Neal, to keep people away for their own safety. Neal told the Washington Critic that he heard cracking sounds coming from the tower at regular intervals beginning around 10 o'clock that night. A policeman making his rounds around 4:30 the next morning noticed the strange noises and was about to go inside to investigate when Neal warned him away just before the whole thing fell to the ground.

The Washington Post reported that "The crash and falling stones was like a peal of thunder, and before it ceased a cloud of white dust rose from the ruins, completely enveloping the building and hiding it from the view of the two startled spectators. Long before the air became clear the whole neighborhood was aroused. Windows were thrown open and scantily-clad figures ran from the houses, under the impression that there had been an earthquake."

The collapsed tower. Photo courtesy of the Archives of the National Presbyterian Church.

What caused the collapse? Fingers were pointed in all directions. "It was the fault of the contractor; it was the fault of the architect; it was the fault of the trustees, of the material, of the mortar, of everything and of nothing," the Post reported with exasperation.

An official investigation soon concluded that the basic design was sound but that inferior materials and workmanship were to blame for the accident. The mortar, in particular, was found to be "practically worthless." The architect, contractors, and Church congregation agreed to divide the cost of reconstruction equally, and a new and very solid tower was soon standing.

The finished church was an exquisite homage to its Byzantine as well as Romanesque forbears. The squarish interior spaces were defined by sweeping vaults with elaborate plasterwork ceiling decoration. The central nave was crowned by a massive square "lantern" with clerestory windows allowing light to shine in from the heavens. On three sides, stained glass windows made by the New York firm of Tiffany and Booth illustrated the life of Christ.

Finally, in the center was a grand, gas-powered brass chandelier, 15 feet wide, that was paid for with monies donated by the children of the church's Sunday school classes. The impressive Byzantine-style chandelier was made in Philadelphia and inspired by a similar fixture in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. It contributed to the church's reputation as the "Hagia Sophia of Washington."

Postcard view of the interior from a photo by Jack Rottier. Used with permission.

The new church prospered and grew, especially after it absorbed the congregation of the historic First Presbyterian Church, which was located on John Marshall Place near the old DC Courthouse. The city government used eminent domain to seize that property in 1930 to provide space for a municipal complex. The Connecticut Avenue church was renamed the Covenant-First Presbyterian Church to recognize the merger of the two congregations.

Already by that time, a sense had been developing among at least some of the church's leaders that the building on Connecticut Avenue was not enough. Other faiths had national churches in Washington, and some Presbyterians wanted a national church as well—something with sufficient accommodations to serve as a national center.

But the sentiment was not unanimous. After all, as David R. Bains has pointed out, an essential tenet of Presbyterianism is the equality of ministers, elders, and congregations. The idea of one particular congregation having a special status as the national church went against the grain. Yet the desire for a national church persisted.

In the 1927 a design was prepared for a sprawling Spanish Gothic-style church complex to be built in Woodley Park, on a site acquired from developer Harry Wardman for $100,000. The ensuing stock market crash put an end to that idea, and the property was sold back to Wardman; the Shoreham Hotel stands there today.

Despite this false start, plans for a national church continued to advance. A major step occurred in October 1947 with a ceremony attended by President Harry Truman marking the official establishment of the Connecticut Avenue church as the National Presbyterian Church. After the unveiling of a plaque on the front of the church, Truman and his family were seated inside in the Presidential pew, which had been taken from the old First Presbyterian Church and had previously seated Presidents Jackson, Polk, Pierce, Buchanan, and Cleveland. Later President Eisenhower would attend this church as well, although he chose not to sit in the traditional Presidential pew, according to a 1953 article in The Washington Post, because it had an obstructed view.

Meanwhile, the quest for a larger church complex went on. A proposal was made in 1954 to construct a church building across N Street on a lot then being used by the church for parking, with an underground tunnel to connect the new building to the old church. However, this plan didn't include adequate parking and was ultimately found to be too costly, so the search for a new location continued.

A site at Massachusetts and New Mexico Avenues NW—the former estate of banker Charles C. Glover, Sr.—was purchased in 1959, and a preliminary design was developed by architect Edward Durrell Stone (1902-1978) for a grand, $20 million, modernist church complex there. This time church officials cringed at the expensive, cathedral-like pretensions of the Stone design, and it was dropped in favor of a more modest plan by Philadelphia ecclesiastical architect Harold E. Wagoner.

In August 1963, church officials announced that they had signed a contract to sell the old church building on Connecticut Avenue for $2.6 million to a developer who planned to raze it and put up a much-more-profitable 10-story office building in its place. It didn't take long for protests to develop. In October, the chair of the National Capital Planning Commission, Elizabeth Rowe, was reported in the Post as expressing grave concerns about tearing down the church, which she called "a landmark of the highest significance, both historically and architecturally."

This prompted the Post's architecture critic, Wolf Von Eckardt, to bemoan the fact that no one seemed willing to do something to stop the loss of the landmark building, which represented for him the only structure of distinction still left on Connecticut Avenue. "No office slab could possibly adorn that multiple intersection as well as that cheerful exclamation mark of a tower, nor give it as much poetry as that well-shaped rough stone heap."

In his rambling article, Von Eckardt claimed that other churches had been shut out of bidding on the building for their own use. He quoted the church's pastor as saying "No other denomination may use a Presbyterian building!" (According to J. Theodore Anderson, the church in fact tried to identify other congregations that might want the building but could find none.)

After dismissing the historic preservationists of his day as "mainly a movement of noble and hopeless protest," Von Eckardt presciently summed up the issues at stake, then as now: "Obviously, sentiment is not enough. Not all old buildings are worth preserving. And not all buildings worth preserving can realistically be preserved. But greater efforts must be made. At stake are not only the landmarks themselves, but the city and not only the image and appearance of the city, but urban economics as well."

The fight was on, and it continued for three more years. Robert R. Garvey, Jr., head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, called the planned demolition a "catastrophe," though he recognized that, with no historic preservation laws yet on the books, he had little power to stop it. The Association for the Preservation of the 1700 Block of N Street was organized and staged a number of protests.

Feeling the pressure, Presbyterian Church leaders called a press conference in 1964 to explain why they needed to proceed with their plans: they had been working on the move for many years, the old church was inadequate for their needs, and the sale of the old property was essential to help fund the new complex.

The preservationists were unmoved. The property had been rezoned to allow for construction of the planned 10-story office building, so the N Street group and others sued to overturn the rezoning. However, the court sided with the church.

The great chandelier downed and ready for removal. Photo from the Historic American Buildings Survey.

With no viable options left, in July 1966 the building came down. Workmen first removed the Tiffany stained glass windows, the historic pews that Presidents had sat in, and the great chandelier paid for by the Sunday school children.

The Postreported that on one day passersby were sent scurrying by a wall that tumbled down unexpectedly during the demolition. This was a brick wall in an adjoining structure, not the solid granite walls of the church itself. In fact, according to J. Theodore Anderson, the church's iconic tower, which had been so poorly constructed the first time around, proved particularly obstinate when the wreckers attacked it 78 years later.

Demolition underway in 1966. Photo from the Historic American Buildings Survey.

Out on Massachusetts Avenue, the ground had been found unsuitable for the planned church complex, and a new site, at 4123 Nebraska Avenue NW—the former Hillcrest Children's Centerwas obtained in January 1966.

The following year construction began on a modernist limestone church and center, with slim Gothic-inspired arched windows. Buildings formerly used by the children's center were also renovated for use as part of the church complex. The new church had its first services in September 1969.

Left: Before demolition. Photo from the Historic American Buildings Survey.
Right: The same view today. Photo by the author.

Meanwhile, back on Connecticut Avenue, a bland 1960's office box was indeed erected on the site of the Church of the Covenant, although it was only 8 stories instead of 10. In 2007, that building was stripped down to its concrete frame and re-sheathed in contemporary tinted glass.

Special thanks to J. Theodore Anderson, Director of the National Presbyterian Church Library and Archives for his invaluable assistance. Other sources included David R. Bains, "A Capital Presence: The Presbyterian Quest for a 'National Church' in Washington, D.C." (2006); James M. Goode, Capital Losses (2003); Albert Joseph McCartney, "The National Presbyterian Church and Its Heritage in Washington" in Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 60/62 (1962); The National Presbyterian Church, The National Presbyterian Church: The First 200 Years 1795-1995; and numerous newspaper articles.

Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.

John DeFerrari is a native Washingtonian with a lifelong passion for local history and writes about it for his blog, Streets Of Washington. His latest book about DC history is Capital Streetcars: Early Mass Transit in Washington, DC. John is also a trustee of the DC Preservation League. The views expressed here are his own. 


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Is this the reason behind the statue of John Witherspoon by the old site?

by Shipsa01 on Jan 14, 2011 10:57 am • linkreport

Probably more important these days than what happens when a church out grows the space and wants to move on, is what happens when a small congregation is struggling to maintain a a fragile old building?

The care of a historic building is really expensive.

by Kate on Jan 14, 2011 11:14 am • linkreport

Religious congregations are subsidized by the community (government) in that they are tax-exempt, yet they enjoy all public services. So they should be good citizens and preserve buildings of architectural and historic importance.

by GWalum on Jan 14, 2011 11:36 am • linkreport

GWAlum, people should do lots of things, however, sometimes the money simply is not there. There is not really a market for used historic churches, no matter how valuable the land they sit on it.

To say "churches should be good citizens" ignores the fact that after a variety of cultural changes you can be left with a handful of people trying to maintain a frightfully expensive old building they can't do anything else with.

The reality is that today we have more religious institutions with historic buildings they can't keep up or sell. That's a bigger problem today than churches out growing buildings and moving on.

by Kate on Jan 14, 2011 12:09 pm • linkreport

Feeling the pressure, Presbyterian Church leaders called a press conference in 1964 to explain why they needed to proceed with their plans: they had been working on the move for many years, the old church was inadequate for their needs, and the sale of the old property was essential to help fund the new complex.

Sounds like the same old story we heard from the good stewards of the Third Church Scientist.

by Lance on Jan 14, 2011 12:27 pm • linkreport

The "Right: The same view today" picture isn't showing up for me...

by pagodat on Jan 14, 2011 1:37 pm • linkreport

@Kate The reality is that today we have more religious institutions with historic buildings they can't keep up or sell. That's a bigger problem today than churches out growing buildings and moving on.

That's very true. Another factor in the equation is that although built as private worship spaces for individual congregations, these buildings seem to take on an importance to the greater community that is far more than just being 'a church or temple for this or that specific congregation or faith'.

Because of the historical societal role which churches and temples have played down through the ages, their very presence, as exemplied by the architectural elements used in their construction, exert an influence far beyond the individual congration's membership.

The soaring spires or comtemplative Brutalist walls serve as a reminder of a higher power to all of us who pass by them. I.e., Since they're designed to be more than a simple meeting place for a defined set of people, in the end, if correctly built to be awe-inspiring and sprituality-inducing, they become integral and irreplaceable parts of a community. Like the symbols of the republic which include buildings such as the White House or the Capitol, these religious buildings by virtue of their purpose and architecture become important parts of the public realm. For example, I'm not Presbytarian, but I can feel that an important part of Washington's soul was lost when this church was destroyed. Even more so than if a public building such as Union Station had been torn down. Why? Because the steeple and everything else in this church is meant to inspire and make me think of God. By design.

Long ago, the French realized that churches buildings are a part of the national heritage and not to be owned or maintained by individual religions or sects or whoever. Starting with the French revolution when the French nation took control of the churches and actually turned some into museums of reason or democracy, the French people, via the state, have owned and maintained these buildings whose signifance goes far beyond the individuals using them for religious services and other very denominational needs. They are viewed as part of the French 'patriomonie' of 'patriotic heritage' ... part of their soul.

The churches buildings were long ago returned to the individual faiths worshipping in them ... to worship in them ... but ownership and, most importantly, responsibility for their care, stewardship and maintenance, have remained with the French people via their 'state'.

It's a really unique solution to a really unique problem. And it works. The congregations can be free to do what theyre supposed to do ... worship and help the poor and comfort and counsel their congregants ... and NOT have to worry about maintaining these monuments to the nation's heritage, while the French nation can be assured that these buildings and all they represent will never be neglected or allowed to be sold to the highest bidder for clearly temporal reasons.

by Lance on Jan 14, 2011 2:28 pm • linkreport

I know this is outside the scope of this article, but I've always wondered about the two towers of the Greater New Hope Baptist Church. It looks like there was more to the towers but that they were possibly gutted in a fire? Anyone have any more info on that?

by Teyo on Jan 14, 2011 2:44 pm • linkreport

I believe there were onion domes on the two towers of the former synagogue.

by GWalum on Jan 14, 2011 3:53 pm • linkreport

Sad. It always seems like the best buildings got demolished. DCs got a lot of historic churches but this one really stands out to me


by Bob See on Jan 14, 2011 4:39 pm • linkreport

Onion domes survive Russian Winters, and they were worried about them withstanding storms here. Huh.

by dcseain on Jan 14, 2011 5:37 pm • linkreport

There are a LOT of unattractive buildings on Connecticut. It's a shame they didn't preserve the pretty ones. As for churches in general, this is an obvious analogy to that Christian Science church on 16th and Eye. The difference is that I bet there won't be any lamentations on its loss 40 years from now.

by potter on Jan 15, 2011 8:26 am • linkreport

@potter, I'd bet you're wrong.

People's appreciation of good architecture is subjective. It gets colored by one's own personal experiences. And one's own need to make their own mark in the world. Am I the least surprised that we're seeing a generation who 'don't like' what their parents and grandparents put forth as their best efforts? No.

Unfortunately, we need to get past those 40 years for people to get past the 'it's not your father's building' syndrome.

It's important to remember that it wasn't that long ago that folks were saying how ugly and garish the old Victorian buildings were and how they should be torn down. I remember that sentiment frequently in my youth. It took my generation to start appreciating them again. Because my generation didn't associate them with 'old'. And that's what's happening with wonderful buildings like the Third Church, people are associating it with 'old' and not appreciating the stunning architecture and use of materials therein. I.e., They can't see past their own internalized prejudices.

by Lance on Jan 15, 2011 9:31 am • linkreport

You keep making this false equivalency argument. Food is also subjective, but there's good food and bad food regardless of one's taste. The brutalist box you like (as do others) was designed to be...brutal. Most people will read that and act accordingly.

As for the "garish victorians" being torn down, that's when the preservation movement took off. Just becasue mosernist architects would deride anything with historical ornament as declasse dosen't mean that the average person thought so. How do you square the tourists flocking to "old victorian Europe" during this time? (White)People where fleeing urban decay, crime, and civic neglect during the white flight, not that "nasty Italianate pile".

People (en masse) might have favored one style or another, but modernism is defined by it's lack of ornament, and incase you haven't noticed, people love to ornament themselves. The "grunge" look of modernism (in general) will always have it's appeal, but any cursory survey of lay peolpes likes will disabuse you of this notion that in another twenty years people will be lining up to live in modernist concrete, or glass and steel boxes (in general).

by Thayer-D on Jan 17, 2011 5:13 am • linkreport


It's a bit unfair to say that the Third Church was "designed to be...brutal." The unfortunate term "brutalism" does not derive from any intention on the part of architects to be brutal but rather comes from the French term "béton brut," which merely refers to the type of bare concrete used in these structures.

by John D. on Jan 17, 2011 8:14 am • linkreport

@ John D.
Agreed, that was a bit unfair. Brutalism is a style, and the designers as with any style, varied in quality. But the intent was to appreciate the raw (brut) quality of concrete along with the anti-ornamental ethos of modernism. The result predictably was something most people find ugly for reasons previously mentioned and the fact that lay people aren't interested in conceptual architecture where by the concept takes precidence over the persuit of beauty. Conceptual architecture has it's place, but a good architect is able to satisfy multiple audiences rather than just academics. Surely, concrete can have it's beautiful aspects, but I was speaking in broad generalities in the way Lance was.

I looked up Brutalism "the aesthetic use of basic building processes with no apparent concern for visual amenity" Amenity in this case being visual. Seems to comport.

by Thayer-D on Jan 17, 2011 10:01 am • linkreport


Yes, unfair because likening something to being brutal because it is 'raw' (I.e., naked, pure, unadulterated) is a really a stretch.

Btw, I'd disagree with you that people naturally like adornment. I've noted that some people do and some people don't. And that fact actually gets reflected in whole societies. For example, compare the Spanish and their architecture and styles to say ... the Danes. Some folks are no-nonense, 'life is logical', 'let's get it done' types of people while others are 'it's not where you're going but how you get there that counts' type of people. And while I personally am probably more the latter type, I recognize and appreciate the first type ... and can see why the Brutalist style could be more appealing to them then say the over-adorned Louis XVII Sun King style. Also, like most people, I can see past my natural tendency to appreciate beauty that is unadorned and simple and to the point. I really think most of us can. Or at least I hope so ... Because seeing outside of one's own box is what can make life interesting.

by Lance on Jan 17, 2011 12:01 pm • linkreport

Separating humanity into "getting it done" types and "damn, don't I look good" types goes a long way to explaining some of your commentary on this here blog. The John Wayne, no frills character, being at times ornamental ie: "put on" must also escape you, like that straight talk'n George Bush.

If you think modernist curtain wall grids with applied I-beams are some how more virtuous architecturally because they "appear" honest, so be it, everyone's intitled to their story line. What's interesting though is you talk about looking outside your box only to mentally put other people in a box. Seems a little ironic.

Speaking of irony, our friend LeCorbusier who coined (I think) the term Brutalism was a small town kid from provincial Switzerland who used to go by the name Jeanerette. Can you guess why he changed his name to the more aristocratic sounding Le Corbusier? Or why he might have pushed flat roofed buildings when his original work in Switzerland had the vastly more progmatic high pitched roof? Just some stuff to ponder while hanging outside your box.

We can surely agree though that variety is the spice of life

by Thayer-D on Jan 17, 2011 12:29 pm • linkreport

I'm all for preserving archetypes of a particular style. The firehouse at 6th and F strets in Chinatown, for instance, is an attractive example of brutalism in its best form and is no way ``brutal'' as we often define that word. Would anyone *really* stand up for the FBI building, for instance, and call it a lovely building or something that adds to the overall eclectic character of the architecture in the nation's capital? Thayer-D is correct to say that there is ``good food and bad food.'' Just because a building, like the church, is of a specific type of architecture doesn't mean it's a good example of that architecture.

by potter on Jan 17, 2011 3:43 pm • linkreport

Potter writes:
"Would anyone *really* stand up for the FBI building, for instance, and call it a lovely building or something that adds to the overall eclectic character of the architecture in the nation's capital?"

I imagine at least one poster on GGW would, if that was what his fellow members of the Committee of 100 would tell him to say.

by Cynic on Jan 18, 2011 8:10 am • linkreport

@potter Just because a building, like the church, is of a specific type of architecture doesn't mean it's a good example of that architecture.

not only is this building landmarked, but it has won many awards for its design ... It's about as good an example as 'good architecture' gets. And lest we forget, even the church itself used to thought the great design in pamphlets it handed out ... Until someone asked to buy the land the building sat on. The story of the Third Church has absolutely nothing to do with good architecture vs. bad architecture ... It's all a story about money. Period.

by Lance on Jan 18, 2011 3:05 pm • linkreport

@Cynic, I don't think the FBI building is an architectural jewell, but I also don't see anything wrong with it. Was it a better building back when it was open to the public? Of course. But you're judging it on something it's not supposed to do in a post-9/11 world ... be open and friendly to passersby.

by Lance on Jan 18, 2011 3:10 pm • linkreport


The FBI building fails because it cannot meet the needs of its tenant. They want a secure complex, the build cannot provide that. Likewise, the building itself is falling apart, thanks in large part to the very nature of its design.

I also don't see what 9/11 has to do with it - the building was hostile to the city and to passersby well before that date.

by Alex B. on Jan 18, 2011 3:16 pm • linkreport

@Alex, I also don't see what 9/11 has to do with it - the building was hostile to the city and to passersby well before that date.

I remember when the building first opened ... I was a university student here at the time ... and I very much remember this building being on the 'must see' tour for everyone. I never did go see it .. But I hear it was definitely open to the public beforehand. Now, did it have ground level retail? Not that I know of ... but that's a fad that's only come about of late. And had 9/11 not happened, you probably would be seeing ground level retail being put in. Because of this thread, I pulled up a few images. The builing really is quite beautiful. Driving by it I'd never realized all the architectural nuances in its design. Perhaps that's why you find it a problem? It's the kind of building you need to be walking by and looking at closely to appreciate? Or is it the lack of ground floor retail?

by Lance on Jan 18, 2011 3:45 pm • linkreport

...The builing really is quite beautiful. Driving by it I'd never realized all the architectural nuances in its design. Perhaps that's why you find it a problem? It's the kind of building you need to be walking by and looking at closely to appreciate? ...

I find the building as hideous as Boston City Hall, and i've walked up to it many many a time and i've spent time looking at it, and have found the FBI building to have no redeeming aescetic value at all.

by dcseain on Jan 18, 2011 3:51 pm • linkreport

Lance, the building was originally to have ground floor retail along PA Ave - those black stone spaces you see along the facade there were supposed to be storefronts. J. Edgar Hoover nixed that before the building was even finished.

So, no - had 9/11 not happened, there would not be ground level retail in the Hoover building. Because they specifically took it out.

I don't like it because it does not contribute to the city. The FBI wants their own version of Langley. Great, let them have it. Let the rest of us have the city fabric back.

by Alex B. on Jan 18, 2011 3:51 pm • linkreport

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