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After Four Years of Controversy Christian Science Church Near White House on Track to Get New Home as Part of Office Complex

By Anthony L. Harvey

Images accompanying this feature can be viewed in the current issue PDF

Another major phase in a convoluted and litigious historic preservation battle centering on the forthcoming demolition of the 1970s Third Church of Christ, Scientist’s Brutalist concrete bunker-style church building in the 16th Street Historic District will begin in late spring and early summer of this year.

Reviled by its own congregation together with secular critics of the modernist architectural style known as Brutalism, yet lavishly praised by historic preservationists and their supporting civic activists, located two blocks from the White House at 16th and I Streets, the church sits in a two-building ensemble of structures around a small urban plaza. Directly across the plaza from the church stands the Christian Science Monitor Building where the congregation presently is meeting on the top floor.

The Monitor building will also be demolished in the course of constructing a new, approximately 160,000 square-foot office building complex by the property’s owner, ICG, joined in this project by JBG, the well-known Washington developer. The Christian Science Church, which owns its building, will participate in the project and will be co-located in a 10,000 square-foot component of the new structure.

Two distinguished architects will guide the design efforts for this important new project: Robert A.M. Stern, Dean of the Yale School of Architecture and prize-winning historic preservationist and modernist architect for ICG/JBG, along with the well-known and award-winning architect of ecclesiastical structures, Thomas L. Kerns of Kerns Group Architects in Arlington, Virginia, for the church component.

In one of many ironies surrounding the controversy about the disposition of the existing church building, both Stern and Kerns were intimately involved from the beginning — Stern on behalf of the preservationists and Kerns on behalf of the church congregation. Both are known for designing successful, contemporary buildings that are aesthetically pleasing — an outcome professed to now being desired by all parties to this long standing, bitter controversy, one which led to litigation, first in an administrative hearing before the Mayor’s Agent following the church building’s historic landmarking and subsequently in the DC Court of Appeals and Federal District Court for the District of Columbia.

Arrayed on one side were the proponents — the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board and the city’s agency supporting its work together with the landmarking applicants, the DC Preservation League (DCPL) and the Committee of 100 on the Federal City and community and national supporters. Fiercely opposing the landmarking were the church and its congregation, backed by the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission, several DC city council members and such collaborating church groups as the Downtown Cluster of Congregations.

Clearing the way out of an entangling web of administrative and adversarial legal proceedings is a complex agreement between the parties that had been filed in the DC Court of Appeals in late November, 2010.

For a controversy that began almost with the very completion of the Third Church’s building in the early 1970s, the agreement that paves the way for demolition and new construction is, at best, another irony and one that in some quarters is considered unseemly; it ends the battle with the DC Preservation League receiving a payment of approximately $770,000 from the development partnership in return for an agreement to drop opposition to the start of the project. The agreement stipulates that these funds are to be used to exhort the proponents of mid-century modernist architecture to the further research and celebration of this –- in the eyes of many — much maligned style of 20th century, cerebrally fashionable building style.

[Editor’s Note: The DC Preservation League has informed us “that the sum to be donated to [DCPL] is not a ‘payment’ but a contribution [italics ours] to a Preservation Fund with the purpose of mitigating the demolition and total loss of this DC historic landmark. The fund will be administered by DCPL with the goal of providing distribution that benefits all eight wards of the city; [that its] funding priorities will be to enhance the citizens’ knowledge and understanding of modernist and religious architecture in Washington, provide training opportunities for congregations on how to raise funds for their historic buildings, and [for] bricks and mortar money for rehabilitative projects. In addition to the establishment of a preservation fund, DCPL will review and comment on the proposed project as it pertains to compatibility within the 16th Street Historic District and its proximity to the White House.”]

Meanwhile, according to Third Church of Christ, Scientist’s Darrow Kirkpatrick, who serves as the church’s First Reader, and church historian David Grier, soon to succeed Kirkpatrick in this leadership role, the  congregation is preparing to work with the two architects in articulating the congregation’s design criteria for their mid-block component of the new complex, which will occupy a four-level, 10,000 square-foot portion with two street-level entrances, one for the church proper and one for the traditional Christian Science Reading Room. And with the church having a condominium ownership of its space, it will be able to control its own lighting and mechanicals within the new building.

The congregation’s preliminary design criteria reflect both the church’s fundamental mission of Christian healing — which the congregation has been providing to the downtown area since 1918 in five different locations within a six block radius of its present location — and serving not only its congregants but also an array of visitors ranging from the politically and economically powerful to the down and out and homeless.

When pressed by this reporter for specifics, Kirkpatrick and Grier reflected on the qualities of Christian Science that the congregation wants expressed in their physical space. These begin with a welcoming presence, one full of light and transparency, with windows and an immediately recognizable entrance that serves to engage church members, visitors and passersby in a manner that will lead them into a nurturing gathering space. And, as far as embellishments to the space, Kirkpatrick emphasized the Christian Science traditions of humility and warmth and connectedness.

Translating these challenging aspirations into architectural design elements will be the task ahead for the congregation and the staff of the architectural firms engaged for the project. Should the project proceed according to initial plans, the congregation would hope to occupy their new church in late fall or early winter of 2014.

[For background on this case, see “Preservation Board’s OrderLandmarking Church Nixed by Federal District Court,” InTowner, April 2009, PDF page 1. Also, “Preservation Board’s Order Landmarking Church Being Challenged in Federal Court,” InTowner, August 2008, PDF page 1 and “City’s Preservation Board Orders Landmarking for Christian Science Church Near White House; Decision Viewed by Many as Incomprehensible, InTowner, December 2007, PDF page 1. All news reports are available in the Current & Back Issues Archive at www.intowner.com.]