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City’s Preservation Board Orders Landmarking for Christian Science Church Near White House; Decision Viewed by Many as Incomprehensible

By Anthony L. Harvey

After a lengthy and heatedly-argued, three-hour continuation hearing, concluding in a well-scripted proceeding presided over by the Chairman of the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), Tersh Boasberg, the Board voted 7-0, with two members absent, to accord historic landmark status to the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, its nearby neighbor the Christian Science Monitor Building, and the open, plaza-like space between them. These structures are located at 16th and I Streets, NW, one-block north of Lafayette Square, across from the White House.

The Board acted on the basis of admittedly flawed applications from the Committee of 100 on the Federal City and the DC Preservation League. These applications were filed in 1991 and 1992, only 20 after the buildings were constructed. Federal statutes call for a wait of 50 years before beginning an assessment of historicity. Chairman Boasberg and Historic Preservation Office (HPO) Staff Director David Maloney, however, assured HPRB members that the applications, already approved, would be revised before being forwarded to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Board’s action was supported by a host of academics — architectural historians and preservationists, private neighborhood historic preservation groups, and several prominent architects, including Robert A.M. Stern and W. Kent Cooper.

There was, however, substantial opposition expressed both in writing and testimony by the Third Church’s congregation; Terry Lynch, Executive Director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations; Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans and at-large Councilmember David Catania, the entire Dupont Circle Neighborhood Advisory Commission (ANC); the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, Neil O. Albert; several prominent architects, including Thomas L. Kerns; and ICG, the property’s new owners — other then the church building, which the Third Church congregation owns.

While HPRB’s landmarking action covers the entire Christian Science site, including the plaza and walkway, the hearing on December 6, 2007 focused almost exclusively on the architectural merits of the church building itself, which had been constructed in the early 1970s and dedicated in 1972 to both architectural praise and community pillorying. The poured concrete walls, which provide the building with three windowless walls, including the 16th and I Street façades, the plaza leading to a “brutalist” blank wall, and the bland minimalist modern Christian Science Monitor building served to immediately cast doubt as to the appropriateness of these constructions on such a prominent 16th Street site.

In 1988, however, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts rose to the celebration of these buildings and the Christian Science site by including them as the only modern structures in the Commission’s series of four, oversize books documenting the grand architectural gems of Massachusetts Avenue and 16th Street — this according to the late Charles Atherton, the former long-time secretary of the Commission.

Text and photographs for this inclusion are disarmingly candid, noting that the church’s “auditorium is exceptionally dynamic and powerful [but] there is little about it that might characterize traditional religious enclosures. It is, after all, an auditorium not a sanctuary.” Continuing, the Fine Arts Commission concluded that the building complex, for all its virtues, has “outstanding problems that are not easily resolved . . . the most damaging is the forbidding elevation brooding over ‘Eye’ Street. The south side of the church conjures the very unfortunate but obvious image of a war time bunker. This dismal view is compounded still further by a dark, narrow, ‘corridor,’ arbitrarily treated, that connects ‘Eye’ Street with the Plaza on 16th Street.”

The church had been unable to purchase the next door parking lot on I Street that would have provided the connecting park-like pass-through for the 16th Street plaza; consequently the plaza now leads to a blank wall which has been subsequently overpowered by a tall glass and steel office building next door. The Fine Arts Commission also noted that “the complex was originally intended to have a marble sheath but cost considerations eliminated it.” The now dead plaza was designed to offset the church building’s poured concrete, bunker like appearance; by most accounts, it has so far failed, even if the architect claims a virtue — pure brutalism — out of necessity: i.e., no windowless marble modernism for the building’s façades.

The 1988 Fine Arts Commission document was relied on by subsequent landmark application proponents. Misconceptions by historic preservationists regarding Christian Science theology, ministry, and church organization began with this document and have been amplified in the 1991 and 1992 Committee of 100 and DC Preservation League landmark applications. Having successfully rebutted these misconceptions, the Church’s congregation provided statements and memoranda to the Board at its December 6 hearing. In a particularly concise memorandum detailing the congregation’s problems with their building — problems the Church asserts began immediately upon occupancy 35 years ago – the Church’s First Reader J. Darrow Kirkpatrick presented highlights from engineering studies of the building’s deteriorating poured concrete walls — which have neither exterior facing nor interior insulation — naked on both sides, and serving as the sole support for the entire building. Also described is the ingenious but impractical HVAC system where the mechanicals providing the hot and cold water for the building’s heating and air conditioning are located across the plaza in the Monitor building. Further described and headlined by Darrow are “the Building’s Physical Constraints on Third Church’s Religious Worship.” These include:

“a. The door [to the church] is hidden from three of four directions from which one approaches the building. This location conveys the erroneous impression that we are not open to strangers or newcomers;

“b. The massive exterior walls with no windows on doors on the sides facing the streets and sidewalks give a forbidding appearance to the average passerby;

“c. The plaza terminates in a high, gray, plain, vertical reinforced concrete wall that offers no interest to the passerby;

“d. The walkways in the plaza in front of the church, and the plaza design itself, direct eye and foot to the office building not the church;

“e. The cavernous auditorium seating 400 is 250 more than needed and presents a dark enclosed environment which is not lessened by two skylights and one window which never give enough light to conduct a service;

“f. The electric lighting, which fully covers the ceiling and must be used for services, further detracts from a feeling of communion with God or man;

“g. At times there is a smell of dampness in the auditorium and it has been impossible to control the spaces temperature.”

Commissioners Bob Meehan and Mike Silverstein spearheaded the Dupont Circle ANC’s unanimous opposition to the landmark application, with the ANC’s primary concerns being that of the defective applications before the HPRB and the Commission’s strenuous objection to the proposed government interference in the ability of a religious community to use their land and building for effective worship and ministry in downtown Washington, DC.

The ANC’s concerns were echoed and expanded on in a supporting brief filed with the HPRB by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, located on Connecticut Avenue in the same Dupont Circle ANC as the Third Church of Christ, Scientist. Silverstein’s passionate testimony on December 6 prompted requests for brevity by HPRB Chairman Tersh Boasberg. Not so, however, when HPO staff were called on to provide new and summary concluding statements. HPO’s Tim Dennée fascinated the Board members with a disquisition on what he characterized as the church building being the brutalist architectural masterwork of I.M. Pei’s partner Araldo Cossutta, who had, said Dennée, a “moral imperative” to construct the Christian Science Church building as he did; Boasberg called on HPRB member Anne Lewis, a practicing architect, for a grade and Lewis gave Dennée an A+, whereupon Lewis proceeded to give her fellow board members and the crowded hearing room a lecture on the schools of architecture known as modernism and brutalism. Board members responded with reports of their enchantment with the Third Church’s interior — although not included as part of the application for landmarking — and the attention directed by architecture school professors to their students from Yale, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania about the attractions of the site.

Chairman Boasberg added his own endorsement to the proposed historic landmarking with a concluding reference to a praiseworthy mention of Pei and Cossutta’s L’Enfant Plaza that was part of the city’s Southwest urban renewal redevelopment area many years ago and the Christian Science project which appears in the preface to the new edition of the A.I.A. guide to the architecture of Washington.

The day’s proceeding concluded with the Board members voting unanimously in favor of landmarking. Thus, Third Church of Christ, Scientist, together with its sister building and connecting structures became historically landmarked in the recently designated Lower 16th Street Historic District — where these same buildings are listed as being “non-contributing” structures; i.e., too recently constructed.

While ironies abounded, Chairman Boasberg asserted to the opponents that landmarking was merely the first step in a process that would allow the opponents to “work” with the HPRB and the HPO staff to resolve their building’s problems — even though HPRB has judged the building to be the masterwork of a visionary genius, one who had solved the architectural design problems of “Brutalism” and consequently produced a structure of ingenious inner working that integrated into a single comprehensive and cohesive whole this downtown urban church building. To the congregation and community opponents, however, these very accomplishments of architect Cossutta’s brutalism and minimal modernism created an unworkable building. Even the projecting horizontal arm of church bells, which intrude into public space, has been called a kitsch adornment, totally unexpected in pure brutalism or minimal modernism.

Writing to the HPRB, architect Thomas L. Kerns raised the question of, again ironically, what in fact had brought the historic preservation movement powerfully to the forefront during the 1970s and 1980s: namely, the destruction of treasured housing, neighborhoods, and valued historic structures, and their replacement with widely reviled modernist and brutalist buildings in the name of urban renewal and economic redevelopment. After asserting the church building’s many design flaws, Kerns concluded that he was left with only “the structure’s sculptural attributes.” Continuing, he stated, “Considered in this context alone, the Third Church building is more of a static urban sculpture than a vibrant, active building. If we learned our lesson from the failed experiments of Urban Renewals in the 1960s, it is that cities do not benefit from empty, lifeless spaces and that cities should not force owners to retain places that destroy their character and mission.”