Demolition of Christian Science church in downtown D.C. progresses

Two blocks from the White House, heavy-duty wrecking equipment has been taking big bites out of brutalism, bringing a dramatic end to a years-long saga about the workings of bureaucracy and the pleas of preservationists.

Since late last month, the northwest corner of 16th and I streets NW has been fenced off while the Christian Science church that was built there has been coming down.

Efforts at preserving it did not focus so much on its proximity to the White House, or its prominent place on 16th, one of the District’s most celebrated streets.

Instead, those who sought to save the structure cited its significance as an example of brutalism. Despite the seemingly unsavory implications of its name, brutalism is an accepted school of architecture, emphasizing bulk, strength and exposed concrete.

It was prominent for a time in the last century, and the word derives from the French wording for rough concrete rather than any malign intent.

Designed in the 1960s, the building had been in service for only a few decades before the congregation of the Third Church of Christ Scientist began trying to have it replaced by a new sanctuary.

The difficulty and expense of upkeep have been cited as prime motivations.

The church joined with developer ICG Properties on a plan to replace the church with an office building that would include a new sanctuary.

This touched off a drawn-out battle over historic preservation that was as vigorously contested as any in the District in recent years.

Extended as it was, the process eventually reached a conclusion.

The last step came when Harriet Tregoning, the city’s then-planning director, issued a 28-page ruling enabling demolition to proceed. She acted in the matter as the mayor’s agent for historic preservation.

For the first few days of demolition, a banner emblazoned with a biblical quotation hung untouched on a southeast-facing side of the structure. But then that was gone, with only a few tatters from its edges flying in the breeze over the weekend.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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