When he came up with the idea of having the building designated a historic landmark, he didn’t know Bishop Clarence Groover Sr. or the parishioners, and he certainly didn’t know that the 150-member church had developed its own plans for the building it purchased 25 years ago.
Boese, who moved to the neighborhood five years ago from Arlington County, just knew from his research that the church building was constructed in 1919 as one of the city’s premier silent-movie theaters, the York. And that the original tin fascia that decorated the building’s facade had been replaced with foam and stucco.
“I would like for the building to be as historically accurate as possible,” said Boese, the secretary of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A, which serves the neighborhoods of Parkview, Pleasant Plains and the northern half of Columbia Heights. With its high exterior arches, the building is a model of early 20th-century movie-house design, he says, and is one of the last original community buildings along Georgia. In March, Boese convinced a majority of his ANC colleagues to submit the application for historic designation to the D.C. Historic Preservation Board.
Although the application has since been placed on hold, Boese’s action has started a war between the commission and Groover and his flock. The church is prevented from doing additional renovation to the building without consent from the board.
“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.
Ward 2 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Mike Silverstein agreed. Growth can’t take place at the expense of the church, he said. Silverstein pointed out that Third Church of Christ Scientist at 16th and I streets NW and the World Mission Society Church of God at Seventh and A streets NE are also embroiled in struggles to improve their properties after they were designated historic. About 50 churches in the city have historic designations. The process for renovating or otherwise changing historic properties is often more time-consuming and expensive.
The Rev. Cheryl Sanders, pastor of the Third Street Church of God in Mount Vernon Square, said that her church, after being designated historic, “has struggled with historic preservation for 10 years to develop our campus,” battling for permits to build a church kitchen and to add parking.
“There are many layers to the process,” she said. “It really comes down to who holds the keys to the future of our city.”
But Boese has a different view.
“Petworth and Parkview are historic black neighborhoods,” he said. “Since 1948 that has been true, but in the beginning of the 19th century, it had a strong German population. In the 20th century it was white Protestant, then there was an influx of Jewish families, and then it became African Americans, and now it is diverse.”
“Whether this building becomes a historic landmark or not, I just want it to be evaluated,” Boese said. “There is no intention to displace the church. The building has been used as a church since 1954. There is nothing about the present to prevent it from being a church.”
According to documents filed with the application to the historical preservation board, the York was the result of the combined vision of architect Reginald W. Geare and builder Harry M. Crandall. Geare had designed six theaters including the Lincoln and the Knickerbocker theaters. When it was built, the York was the neighborhood jewel of an all-white, family-oriented community. While the building exterior was designed to be simple, the interior was trimmed in black, silver and gold.
Between 1948 and 1950, Parkview and Petworth changed as white families moved out and black families moved in. Demographic shifts and construction of theaters such as the Tivoli meant the end for the York and other venues, according to the documents. In 1957, the National Evangelistic Center purchased the building and it became the third home to Evangel Temple. Bishop Walter Meares and his congregation worshiped there for 14 years before moving to a new home on Rhode Island Avenue NE. In 1977, Groover and his flock moved into the facility.
But not all members of ANC 1A agreed with Boese that the church should be designated a historic landmark. Commissioner Lenwood Johnson came to the Groover news conference and apologized for the ANC’s 4 to 2 vote in favor of the historic designation for the church.
“I am embarrassed that the ANC took this action without talking to the church. I am here to fight with you.”
The preservation board plans to schedule a hearing on the application in November, and on Sunday, Boese said that he would still like to meet with Groover and leaders of the church to reach an agreement on the issue. The church can alter the interior of the building but not the outside.
Groover said that the process is frustrating.
“They are making it very difficult for us to remain in the city in terms of parking and everything,” he said. “Right now, we can’t get any more permits unless we go through them, even though it is not designated as a historic landmark.”