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Scenes from the Past...

The Massive Church Collapse That Awakened Dupont Circle Residents

By Paul Kelsey Williams
Historic Preservation Specialist, Kelsey & Assoc., Washington, DC; Scenes from the Past author since 2001.

The Church of the Convent once dominated the intersection of 18th and N Streets and Connecticut Avenue, NW for two reasons — for its massive scale and soaring tower built beginning in 1887 and for its dramatic collapse into the intersection in August of 1888. Rebuilt within months, the impressive structure stood at the site until it was razed in 1966 for an office building that remains today, after an existence of just 78 years.

The Church of the Covenant was organized in 1883 by members of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church who desired a new church in the emerging residential neighborhood of Dupont Circle. They built a small chapel on N Street in 1884 and then raised funds to hire New York architect J. Cleveland Cady to design a new church that was built next to the chapel beginning in 1887. Facing the triangular intersection, the church building was constructed at a cost of $200,000.

J.C. Cady (1837-1919) is known for his designs of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and the Museum of Natural History and the old Post Office building in Washington. Local architect Robert I. Fleming served as Cady’s site agent, tasked with overseeing construction and making minor alterations as necessary. W.C. Morrison was hired as its contractor.

The church was patterned after Henry Hobson Richardson’s Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh, built with a similar tower standing 150 feet high. Interior stained glass windows were designed by Tiffany & Booth of New York, and the centerpiece was a gas lit brass chandelier that extended fifteen feet high, inspired by an ancient fixture at Saint Sophia in Istanbul.

Shortly after its completion, at exactly 4:40 am on August 22, 1888, an alert security guard named Thomas Neal heard moans and cracking in the tower, and rushed outside fearing the worse. He stopped a police officer Kenny from approaching the building, and the two men witnessed what must have been a terrifying collapse of the entire tower and front wall of the stone church.

The Washington Post of the following day described the scene as follows: “The wall of the tower…fell outward to the street. The tall spire above, held together by the adhesive power of the mortar, swayed for an instant over the structure, threatening to fall its whole length across the body of the church, and then sank straight downward, crumbling into fragments as it fell, crushing down with its weight the front wall of the building and tearing through the roof and floor into the basement. The crash and falling stones was like a peal of thunder, and before 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.”

An investigation into the cause of the collapse was immediately commenced, and the church promised to rebuild. The tower had been composed of Ohio sandstone used as a veneer and Seneca blue stone, obtained from quarries along the upper Potomac, used as ruble in a concealed inner wall. The cause of the collapse was blamed on faulty construction, faulty mortar, and the fact that a door had been added to the base of the tower, making an opening in each it its four sides, stressing the weight put on its four piers. It was noted that not two stones could be found in the ruble still attached, and that they had been laid without first being soaked with water, rendering the mortar to dust. The cost of the damage was estimated at $30,000, and a pending lawsuit was settled by the architect, contractor, and congregation splitting the cost of rebuilding.

One rebuilt in 1889, the church was considered the most socially prestigious in Washington, attracting President Benjamin Harrison, John Hay, Robert Lansing, and Henry Stimson as a few of the 1,600 notable parishioners.

The church name changed to Covenant-First Presbyterian Church in 1930, when it merged with the congregation of the First Presbyterian Church, whose sanctuary on John Marshall Place had been purchased and razed by the District government. In 1947, the name changed again to the National Presbyterian Church.

The residential nature of the area had changed to commercial by the 1950s, and in 1959, the congregation purchased and razed the Charles Glover Sr. estate, a 16 acre parcel near Ward Circle. Only after the impressive mansion was demolished did they determine that the ground was unsuitable for erecting a large masonry church, perhaps weary of their first unsuccessful venture.

In 1967, the church purchased a lot at the intersection of Nebraska Avenue and Van Ness Street and had a church designed by architect Harold E. Wagner that incorporated many of the stained-glass windows and architectural artifacts removed from the original church. Sadly, the original church building was razed in 1967 and replaced with a nondescript office building.