Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Churches


Dupont church ruins may become new housing and a new church

In August 1970, an arsonist poured 12 gallons of gasoline on the Gothic 71-year-old St. Thomas Parish at 18th and Church streets in Dupont Circle. The building burned in minutes. Soon, only the parish hall, some ruins around the altar, and a single stone gable pointing to the sky remained.

Soon, that spot could become part of a new church and an apartment or condominium building.

Left: The 1899 building. Right: Concept design for a new church. All images from St. Thomas unless otherwise noted.

After the fire, most of the original building became a small park, and in fits and starts, the Episcopal congregation there worked to rebuild. They converted the 1922 parish hall behind the church into worship space and have used it since. But there's no way for a person in a wheelchair to reach the sanctuary, nor a casket for a funeral. Nor is there enough space for other programs.

From 2007 to 2012, Matthew Jarvis, a young architect and parishioner, designed a new church on the site of the old one. It was a modest, low building compared to the 120-foot-tall original. A roof with 12 triangular skylights would envelope the gable at one end and taper down to a two-story stone façade on 18th Street.

A rendering of Jarvis' proposal.

The church looks to private development

But the parish and the diocese, which in the Episcopal Church controls the property, concluded that they couldn't afford to build and maintain this larger building. After long discussions with church members, they decided that the only way to be able to afford a new building was to partner with a developer, who would construct a residential building on part of the property, raising money for the church.

Working with Michael Foster of MTFA Architecture, the congregation created this draft design. Personally, I find grand religious architecture more compelling than the subdued design of the last attempt. It also better matches the other buildings along 18th Street, most of which are at least 4 stories and some rise as high as 9.

Meanwhile, a 70-foot residential building with 6 or 7 floors would face Church Street. (Disclosure: I live on this block, and can see the church from my window.) After receiving proposals from several developers, the congregation chose CAS Riegler, a firm based in Shaw, to design the residential building as well as to develop two vacant townhouse lots on P Street the church now uses for parking.

Some decisions are open for discussion, some are not

At a community meeting Wednesday night, church officials, Foster, and Kevin Riegler from CAS Riegler, emphasized that the process was still very young. Unfortunately, the meeting started out somewhat disorganized. A planned slide presentation about the church's overall plan for the site didn't materialize because of technical difficulties.

Some residents felt "surprised" that the church had already made a number of decisions with MTFA in writing their request for proposals: they will place the religious building on the 18th Street side of the property and the main residential building on Church Street; they want to demolish most of the parish hall; and there will be 15 parking spaces for the church and 41 for the residential building.

Foster never came right out and revealed these facts, which only came up because some residents had gotten a look at the RFP. It took a few questions from residents to clarify that Riegler was only responsible for the residential building and that the church's plan was largely not open for discussion.

Riegler emphasized his firm had only come on board 11 days prior and the residential building was "a blank slate." While he was laudably bringing in community members now in an effort to get input on the ground floor, many decisions about the site had already been settled before he was involved.

Residents worry about density and losing the park

"You've grieved for the loss of your church for 40 years," said one resident at the often-acrimonious meeting. "Now we have to grieve for the loss of our park." The park will no longer be public open space, though Riegler noted that with Dupont Circle one block west, there is already a good amount of space, and he didn't even mention Stead Park one block to the east.

Others, including some who had supported the church's earlier plan to build on the park, felt the building was too tall. Riegler pointed out that a 70 foot building, which is what zoning allows, is shorter than the 90-foot-tall building at 18th and P (or Massachusetts) which until recently housed the National Trust for Historic Preservation, or the also 90-foot apartment buildings on the corner of 17th and Church, at the opposite end of the block.

I personally would like to see the site accommodate as much new housing as possible, given that DC desperately needs to build 41,000 to 105,000 new homes over 20 years in order to house all of the people, at all of the income levels, who want to move to or stay in the District. But to many, the idea of what could be 58 new housing units represents a big change.

A number of residents argued that the church is not fulfilling its godly mission by partnering with a developer in a transaction that was mostly about dollars. "Is it the church's mission to build 58 condos? That's a paltry mission," one resident said. "We don't need more apartments, we don't need more autos," said another who had just moved to Dupont Circle when the church burned in 1970.

Yet another nearby resident asked why the congregation had to stay on the site at all. "Why don't you guys move? Find another facility" and donate the land to a different nonprofit, she suggested. ANC Commission Leo Dwyer argued that the church has been a treasured neighbor, letting a local LGBT congregation meet there and hosting health groups, not to mention serving as a polling place (at least for now; the DC Board of Elections plans to move and consolidate polling places).

Still, over the course of the meeting many people (including myself to some degree) grew a little more comfortable with some details that had been worrisome. Maybe some of these resemble the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. The conversation starts with claims that the community wasn't involved, then moves to arguments that a building is too intrusive, and works its way to a discussion about what neighbors can constructively get in the design to maximize their quality of life within the constraints of zoning, property rights, and fairness.

What will be preserved?

A lot of questions remain. Chief among them is what will happen to the stone façade of the parish hall, which certainly merits historic preservation, and the gable and ruins, which do so even more. While the new design for a church on 18th Street is impressive, it might have been easier to preserve more of the old church by building the new church where the old church elements are instead of on the other end of the property.

Photo by A.Currell on Flickr.

I asked Ryan Winfield, chair of the church's Building Committee, who said they didn't want the church to be hidden away behind other buildings. It once had a grand entrance on 18th Street, and they'd like it to again, he said. A lot of people don't even know it's there now, and assume it's just a completely abandoned site. Plus, they'd like to make reference to the past but also move beyond it after spending 40 years literally in its shadow.

Still, there are countervailing forces between a congregation that wants to design the best site from their point of view, neighbors who might prefer the slightly lower church to be adjacent to their homes, and preservation laws that give historic architectural elements, as this most certainly is, a special legal status.

Riegler promised another meeting in a few weeks to present their early designs for the residential buildings. He and his architectural partner for the residential building, Hickok Cole, will have to find a way to design something that preserves, incorporates, and references old elements while also being very much new.

Ultimately, the church has the right to build on their vacant property, and as long as it's "historically compatible," Riegler has the right to build a 70-foot residential building. For residents who don't want any building here, in particular, this process may require moving through the grieving process to accept that the park will go away, and then working to push for the most attractive design possible.


In Silver Spring, "mixed-use" means housing, shops & church

Across the region, cash-strapped churches are taking advantage of their property's development potential. The latest congregation is the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring, whose plans to replace their aging sanctuary with apartments, shops and a new church will go before the Montgomery County Planning Board on Thursday.

Photo from the Silver Spring Historical Society.

First Baptist Church is at the corner of Fenton Street and Wayne Avenue in downtown Silver Spring, four blocks from the Silver Spring Metro and across the street from a future Purple Line stop. Built between 1927 and 1956, the church's buildings are showing their age and no longer fit the congregation's needs. It could cost $5 million to bring them up to code.

That's why the church has partnered with developers Grosvenor Americas and LaKritz Adler, who propose replacing the church (PDF) with a 6-story, 259-unit apartment building with 18,650 square feet of ground-floor retail space and an underground parking garage.

A new, 29,000-square-foot church, containing a sanctuary, classrooms and a day care center, would be built next door. Between them would be a mid-block pedestrian passage with landscaping and public art.

Redevelopment causes debate between congregations, preservationists

The Church at Clarendon with apartments above. Photo by Ron Cogswell on Flickr.

Whether due to declining attendance or growing ambitions, other area churches are doing the same thing, notably the Third Church of Christ, Scientist in downtown DC, which partnered with a developer to raze their architecturally significant sanctuary and replace it with a new church and office building.

In Arlington, the Church at Clarendon sold the air rights above their church so an apartment building could be built on top. Meanwhile, the First Baptist Church of Wheaton sold their property to an apartment developer to relocate to Olney.

These projects often pit congregations against preservationists, who argue that the churches are historically or architecturally significant and should be saved. The Silver Spring Historical Society fought to have the First Baptist Church designated as a historic landmark; in response, the church hired a historian to argue that the building was nothing special.

It's a "dime-a-dozen church," Pastor Duncan McIntosh told the Gazette in 2011.

The Montgomery County Planning Board chose not to designate the building, opening it up for redevelopment. However, stained glass windows from the old church may be used in the new one, according to Jerry McCoy, president of the historical society.

Proposed design provides transition between downtown and neighborhoods

Site plan of the proposed First Baptist Church redevelopment. All images from the Montgomery County Planning Board.

Whether or not the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring is historically significant, it plays an important role in the community. Ironically, tearing it down will allow the church to remain in the community by giving it much-needed income and a new sanctuary that better fits their needs. Not only that, but the proposed design will encourage the further revitalization of downtown Silver Spring while creating a nice transition to surrounding neighborhoods.

The apartment building, designed by SK+I Architects of Bethesda, will have ground-floor retail along Fenton Street between Wayne and Bonifant Street, filling a large gap between the core of downtown Silver Spring and Fenton Village. Along Wayne and Fenton, the building will be 6 stories tall and have a modern façade with metal and concrete panels and large expanses of glass.

Rendering of proposed First Baptist Church redevelopment from Wayne and Fenton.

View of the building from Bonifant and Fenton.

In 2011, neighbors agreed to allow the building additional height along Fenton; in exchange, the developers have reduced its height to 4 stories along Bonifant, where it's adjacent to single-family houses. The exterior on that street is more traditional, with divided-light windows and brick cladding; instead of shops, there are ground-floor apartments with "real doors."

In response to concerns about through traffic, a chicane will be placed on Bonifant Street. It'll slow drivers down, but still allow them to pass through, making it a much better alternative than the "fake cul-de-sacs" placed in many areas around downtown Silver Spring that just dump more traffic on the main streets.

Public space mixes church and community

Rendering of "Wingspire" sculpture and passage.

However, the most interesting part of the project might be its public open spaces, which take up two-fifths of an acre. It's here that apartment residents, shoppers and diners, and church parishioners will cross paths and mingle, creating an interesting mix.

The church's entrance on Wayne Avenue will face a small plaza, which also has tables and chairs for outdoor dining. On Bonifant Street is a playground for the church's day care center, which will be open to the public at set times. Connecting them is a mid-block passage between the apartments and the church, with benches and bioretention planters that hold and filter rainwater.

There will also be a 30-foot-tall public art piece dubbed "Wingspire." Frederick-based artist William Cochran designed a sculpture made of dichroic glass, which is embedded with thin layers of metal and can display a variety of colors. The glass will also be embedded in the passage's stone pavers, creating what Cochran calls a "river of light."

After years of debate, a design has emerged for the new First Baptist Church of Silver Spring that might make everyone happy. Not only does it allow a nearly century-old congregation to remain in place, but it allows downtown Silver Spring to continue growing while respecting adjacent neighborhoods. A church is often the heart of a community, but in a project like this, it's literal.

Check out this slideshow with additional images of the First Baptist Church proposal.


Shaw church parking demand is nothing new

Church parking is a huge problem in Shaw, especially today. It's commonly said that the churches in Shaw used to serve immediate residents, and thus didn't need as much parking, but as their congregants have moved farther away over time, they need space for their cars on Sundays. But is this true?

Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

Mari at InShaw did some research and found a 1957 survey of churches in the "Shaw Urban Renewal Area." She writes:

Of the 42 churches reporting in the NW Urban Renewal area (see map), only 14 had 40% or more of their membership in the renewal area in 1957. Yes, that is 56 years ago, but as present day churches grousing about parking dredge up members who've been attending for 40-50 years as an excuse to ignore parking violations of members of undetermined tenure, I say it is fair to look at membership patterns from way back then.

Image from 1957 survey via InShaw.
In [an Examiner article from October, entitled "Parking conflicts prompting churches to flee D.C.,"] Lincoln Congregational Temple is mentioned as one of the complaining churches. On page 39 of the 1957 survey only 25% of its congregants lived in the area and supposedly of that, most were elderly, people who should be by now at home with Jesus. With the Savior and not driving and trying to find a parking spot.

In '57 a majority of their membership [were] up in Brookland and over in Kenilworth. It is possible that the church recruited a ton of members in the Shaw area since the survey, who then moved out of the area and come back on Sundays. However, I don't think that gives anyone a moral right to a parking spot, no more than having the right to use the toilet in your first apartment years after you turned in the keys and got[] your deposit back.

Shaw is chock full of churches, and some of them have figured out how to worship without double parking and the like. Sadly it is the ones who haven't seriously looked for solutions, other than breaking the law, who seem to scream the loudest. It is embarrassing as a believer, when some church leaders try to make parking a theological issue. Parking ain't in the Bible.

The parking problem has grown especially acute recently. Residents petitioned DDOT to extend residential permit parking (RPP) to Sundays, meaning churchgoers who don't live in the area can only park for 2 hours on RPP blocks and not at all on one side of every street. That has made it impossible for church patrons to use the street parking.

I also suspect that in 1957 Shaw had fewer resident-owned cars, so there wasn't the same level of competition for curb space.

DDOT has been working with individual churches for some time to try to find extra space that can accommodate parking on Sundays, like diagonal parking or space along the medians of wide avenues. But any such parking has to be open to all, not just churchgoers (anything else would be fairly clearly unconstitutional), and just adding more free parking won't ultimately solve the problem.

Many of the churches, but not all, have nearby office buildings or public schools with unused parking capacity on Sundays. There should be a way to work out a deal where the churches can use these lots. However, that parking won't be entirely free.

As we saw with the compromise the Washington Interfaith Network worked out for Columbia Heights churches to use the DC USA garage, once free parking is clearly not an option, suddenly a compromise that involves non-free parking becomes tenable.

The neighborhood parking also isn't entirely full, now that it's so restricted. It should be possible to let some people who want to drive to Shaw park on neighborhood streets, but there isn't room for all. How can DC allocate this scarce resource? The only ways to divvy up a limited resource is lottery, queue, pricing, favoritism (choosing one preferential group), or a hodgepodge.

Right now, it's favoritism for residents, with no option for others. The most sensible approach would be to set up a parking pass that's not free, perhaps also limited in number, which people could purchase to park in Shaw on Sundays. But the assumption that parking must be free, that free parking is a God-given right, is a straitjacket that forecloses better, creative solutions.

Update: The change to the parking included restrictions to RPP holders only on one side of every street. The original article did not mention this feature of the new policy. It has been corrected.


At summit, people ask for free parking for themselves

Comments at a DDOT "parking summit" last night gave a glimpse into the diverse range of attitudes about parking in the District: almost everyone wants more readily available, free parking for people like them.

Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

Some who spoke were residents who wanted more available and free parking on their local streets. Some people with disabilities wanted to have more available spaces but not have to pay for parking at meters, as they don't today. (Right around the same time, the DC Council narrowly defeated the new red top meter program, which means people with disabled placards will continue to park for free.)

A large fraction of the attendees worship at DC churches, and argued that especially because of their service to the community, they deserve more privileges to park for free on DC streets. Many represented churches in the Logan Circle area, which recently reserved one side of the street for residential permit holders 7 days a week.

While demanding unlimited free parking isn't really fair, the Logan Circle churches have some reasonable gripes. A few months ago, Councilmember Jack Evans suggested to the Logan Circle ANC that they try this parking change; the ANC approved the plan and DDOT put it into place. The churches, evidently, weren't part of that discussion.

This is a simple matter of allocating a scarce resource. Before, the policy on Sundays was to allocate the spaces to whomever showed up first or circled around long enough to find a space. Now, it privileges residents at the expense of churchgoers or shoppers or others. Maybe that's a better policy, maybe not, but we all need to acknowledge that it's a tradeoff; when one group gets more privileges, another loses them.

Pricing has to be part of the equation

One participant, Emily from Adams Morgan, pointed out that the current political system favors residents, though not for any sound policy reason. She was one of the handful of people who pushed for a market-based pricing approach. There's still a way to go to sell this to the church folks, however; many were grumbling and shaking her heads when Emily, or anyone else, suggested that a solution to church parking is to stop having it all be free.

But that's ultimately what we have to do. Richard Layman pointed the finger for parking problems at the way most District parking policies assume parking should be free. Thus, the argument always revolves around whether to give one group free parking or another, rather than to use tools like pricing to manage demand.

He took aim at the sentiment that because people pay for RPP stickers, they have already paid their share. "You think you're paying for parking, but you're not paying squat," he said. Angelo Rao, DDOT's parking manager, also suggested RPP rates are too low, noting that the current sticker costs only 9.6¢ per day.

Several people, including outgoing southern Woodley Park ANC commissioner Anne-Marie Bairstow, new northern Woodley Park ANC commissioner Gwendolyn Bole, and Friendship Heights ANC commissioner Tom Quinn, all asked for smaller RPP zones.

Bairstow said the current visitor pass program, which automatically mailed out passes to every household, is flawed; she has neighbors who have driveways and garages and still got the passes, so they just gave them to friends from outside Ward 3 or even outside the District, who then use Woodley Park as a park-and-ride.

What's the answer for churches?

Smaller zones and higher RPP prices are policies that should clearly be part of any solution; the only obstacle is politics. The church issue is trickier. I've been pushing for a system where residents buy annual passes, as they do today but at a higher rate, for their immediate areas, and anyone else can buy daily passes, maybe at varying rates based on public policy.

Instead of the current visitor placards, give each resident a "booklet" of free day passes to use for contractors, nannies, dinner parties, or whatever else, and let them purchase more booklets if needed. For a church that really contributes meaningfully to its community (many do, some don't), we could give the church even more booklets, enough to provide for a large proportion of their parking need, but perhaps not all.

There needs to be some incentive for the churches and neighborhoods to work together in a partnership. Churchgoers can reduce their parking load to some extent, such as by organizing carpools. In some neighborhoods, there are empty office garages; if enough people were willing to pay to park in them, they could open on Sundays. But the church community has to be willing to figure out how to accommodate some of their demand in other ways.

The booklets could form an incentive to do this, if DDOT could manage the total numbers of booklets and passes it gives out so that the total demand doesn't vastly exceed supply. Or, economists might say, just give the church money and let them buy however many booklets they need, though that could be legally tricky.

The summit did bring this fundamental tension into clear relief. Lots of people want the spaces. There aren't enough. Someone has to divvy them up in some way. A program of letting anyone park for free doesn't work, and the complex patchwork of restrictions and limits that DDOT has been moving toward doesn't really work either.


Park View community battles over preserving church

The latest historic preservation fight is in the Park View neighborhood, where a newer resident wants to landmark a church on Georgia Avenue, but the church's leaders and many longtime residents oppose the idea.

The partially-removed fascia. Photo by Kent Boese.

Kent Boese, librarian, ANC commissioner, Park View history expert, and former contributor to Greater Greater Washington nominated the Fishermen of Men Church as a landmark, Hamil Harris reports in the Post. The 1919 building was originally a silent movie theater.

The church removed the tin fascia on the church last year, to Boese's dismay, replacing it with foam and stucco, which Boese says probably was more expensive than just fixing the historic tin. Boese filed a landmark application in the spring to preserve what's left of the building.

Given the extent of changes, Boese may face a tough road. The Historic Preservation Office and Historic Preservation Review Board have been more reluctant to nominate buildings where much of the historic character is already lost. A designation based on the physical building relies on what exists, not what once did.

They've also been reluctant to designate buildings against the owner's wishes in most situations, and this time, the owner and many other residents are strongly opposed.

"There is no historic value to this building," Groover said during a sidewalk rally he held Thursday to protest the ANC's action. The rally looked more like a curbside revival service complete with singing, people tapping on tambourines and several other ministers who spoke about how their congregations have been hampered by historic designations.

Behind Groover's corner rally, the skyline was filled with new apartments, and young adults strolled on sidewalks lined with new storefronts. Groover, who is also the leader of a 21-church organization in the city, said he staged the protest because he thinks his church's struggle is emblematic of a larger battle taking place in the District between longtime residents and new ones in gentrifying neighborhoods. At stake, he asserts, is the ability of churches to continue to exist in parts of the city.

There is indeed some conflict between longtime churches, many of whose congregants now live in Prince George's County, and new residents in many changing neighborhoods. The disparate members want to drive into the District to park, but the influx of cars interferes with local quality of life.

This fight doesn't really seem to be about that, though. Boese said he's not trying to displace the church and there's no real evidence he is. Nor is it really about churches at all. It does point out how the historic preservation system, generally popular in many existing historic districts, has a very different reputation outside.

Different neighborhoods may need different preservation rules

DC's preservation laws arose in an era when cities were on the decline and the trend was to tear down large numbers of buildings for new freeways, suburban-style shopping centers, and other offenses to the walkable neighborhood. Most residents, especially in affluent areas, eagerly sought out preservation protection to keep this from disrupting their neighborhoods.

Inside most historic neighborhoods, there's general consensus to keep the rules that exist. Many other neighborhoods could benefit from some design review and protection for existing structures, but the strict rules in place for current historic districts often don't work for the residents of other areas. That's why they turned down designation in Chevy Chase and Barney Circle, and preservation staff said that there wasn't support for a district in Southwest Waterfront.

Chevy Chase residents were interested in rules that might prohibit "McMansions," but they didn't want to have to get approval for every change, such as the types of windows in a house or whether a small addition is visible from a street.

However, former HPRB chair Tersh Boasberg consistently opposed a "preservation lite" set of less-restrictive rules for other neighborhoods. His hard line disregarded the value of listening to communities and crafting rules that meet residents' wishes. Maybe there are historic protections that the longtime residents of Park View actually want, but which aren't the same as what Cleveland Park wants.

Preservation often seems to teeter on the verge of just being a wall around a few parts of the city, mostly in Northwest, Capitol Hill, and Anacostia. If it does, people like Boese will find themselves lone voices in other neighborhoods. The preservation movement needs to think about how to win the hearts and minds of Boese's neighbors, rather than just how to win a specific designation battle for a particular building.

Pending designation can freeze any work

The article notes that with the historic designation application on file, the church can't get any permits to renovate. There's some logic behind that, because otherwise a property owner would have an incentive to quickly destroy any historic elements in order to confound the preservation application, but it's also very unfair to the owner when these applications drag on for months or years.

This application was submitted in March. The Historic Preservation Review Board now has a hearing scheduled in November, but when cases are controversial, the staff often pulls them from the agenda until there is more of a consensus.

The Third Church of Christ Scientist at 16th and I had a landmark application filed in 1991, but wasn't designated until 2007. The application for the Western Bus Garage in Friendship Heights has been pending since 2005. In its resolution opposing the landmark designation, ANC 3E wrote,

We have on several occasions observed that the mere fact of application appeared to be treated as de facto designation, resulting in deference to the preservation as a value overriding all other values in the planning process. ...

ANC 3E urges generally that for future projects the HPRB should make clear to the SHPO and its staff, as well as relevant agencies, that a mere application for designation should not be equated with designation nor does it mean that all elements of that application are of equal merit or supportable.

It's phenomenally unfair to deny a property owner the ability to make changes to a property which is not actually designated historic, and at the same time let it languish in possibly-historic limbo for years.

Government power usually does not work this way. Zoning changes might be on the horizon, but the Zoning Administrator does not deny all zoning permits until a zoning amendment is finished; instead, you can file plans under the current zoning rules until and unless they change.

It's convenient for the Historic Preservation Office to have the power to put change on hold until it is ready to deal with an issue, but that further impairs preservation's reputation among those affected.


Then & Now: Anacostia's Saint Teresa

As songs of praise emanate from numerous houses of worship in Anacostia each Sunday morning, one church stands out as a part of living history. It has experienced reorganization, schisms, and change, but it still faithfully anchors the same corner as it did more than 130 years ago.

Saint Teresa of Avila in Anacostia. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Saint Teresa of Avilla Avila, at the northwest corner of 13th and V streets SE, is the oldest Roman Catholic Church in DC east of the Anacostia River. It was originally part of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, because the Vatican did not make the City of Washington a separate archdiocese until 1939. St. Teresa, in fact, is older than the Archdiocese of Washington by more than a half century.

The new church was greeted with great enthusiasm even before it was finished being built. An April 1879 Washington Post article describing the laying of its cornerstone also reports of a celebratory parade, saying:

The route was determined on as follows: from City hall, down Four-and-a-half street to Pennsylvania avenue, thence to St. Peter's church, where the visiting clergy and others will join the procession, thence across the navy yard bridge to Uniontown. With regard to the formation of the line, it is thought that it will be the same on St. Patrick's day, except that there will be five divisions instead of four, the colored societies making the fifth.
When Saint Teresa opened its doors in the fall of 1879 Uniontown had a hotel, post office, police substation with mounted patrols while Henry A. Griswold's single-horse streetcar ran every 20 minutes. Frederick Douglass, the United States Marshal for the city lived just down the street.

According to The Anacostia Story. by the turn of the 20th century black parishioners were dissatisfied with the limited role they were permitted; African Americans were relegated to celebrate Mass in the church basement.

In response a group under the name "Mission of St. Teresa" organized to establish a separate church and parish for African American Catholics. Others changed their affiliation and went crosstown to Saint Augustine, the city's mother church for black Catholics since 1858, four years before the city's emancipation.

By 1920 ground was dug, dirt was moved, cement was turned and cornerstone laid for Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church on Morris Road SE, on the grounds of Fort Stanton.

According to Cultural Tourism DC, this was the second formal division of St. Teresa's. The first occurred when white parishioners left to establish Assumption Catholic Church in what had been the village hall for Congress Heights at 611 Alabama Avenue SE on April 2, 1916.

Saint Teresa today. Photo by the author.

As the neighborhood's demographics began to change in the 1960s and the neighborhood became increasingly African American, the congregation of Saint Teresa changed as well. In 1976 Saint Teresa received its first African-American pastor. On a recent visit, with the exception of some college students, the overwhelming majority of worshipers are African American.

Today, Saint Teresa is one of more than a dozen historic churches in greater Anacostia still going strong, an important and familiar neighbor for parts of three centuries.

Excerpts from this post originally appeared in a 2010 article for East of the River.


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 wellsomething 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 NWthe 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 NWthe 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.

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