John Kelly
John Kelly
Columnist

James Renwick’s Trinity Episcopal Church was a striking place of worship

Matthew Brady/Library of Congress - Trinity Episcopal Church stood for 85 years at the northeast corner of Third and C streets N.W., where the Department of Labor is today.

A few weeks ago, The Post Sunday magazine ran a photograph of the unfinished Capitol. In the foreground is a magnificent red church. What happened to it?

— Cris Ghillani, Washington

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Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Answer Man remembers reading that somewhere. The point the author was trying to make was this: Nothing lasts forever.

That was certainly true of Trinity Episcopal Church, which stood for 85 years at the northeast corner of Third and C streets NW, where the Department of Labor is today. So striking was its design — especially the pair of spires, topped by airy, open steeples made of wood — that several readers turned to Answer Man for information on the red sandstone church.

The handsome house of worship came from the pen of New York architect James Renwick, best known in Washington for designing the Smithsonian Castle. In fact, Renwick’s Trinity Episcopal Church almost was the Smithsonian.

When competition opened in 1846 to design a combination museum/library/laboratory/office building for the new Smithsonian Institution, Renwick snuck in two entries. One was a Norman-style castle with a round-arched entryway. The other was an elaborate Gothic creation, with pointier arches and two spires.

We’re familiar with the design the committee preferred. You can see it on the Mall. The other design exists today only in drawings and, because Renwick recycled it for the church (chopping off the flanking wings), in photographs.

The cornerstone of Trinity Episcopal was laid April 2, 1850, and the first service was held in May 1851. The neighborhood was substantially different then: more stylish, with a well-to-do congregation that included politicians from the nearby Capitol. Next door to the church was a grocery store run by W.W. Birth. (It’s visible in the photo, too.)

When the Civil War broke out, Trinity’s rector was the Rev. E.W. Syle. His loyalties tended more toward Jefferson Davis than Abraham Lincoln, and when his bishop ordered Syle to read a prayer in support of a Union victory, he refused. He was later forced to resign.

During the war, the church was requisitioned for use as a hospital. A raised wooden floor was laid atop the pews and secured with nails. (The nail holes were forever visible.) Lincoln is said to have visited wounded soldiers.

As anyone who has tried to heat a drafty house in the winter knows all too well, maintenance on a big structure can be a killer. So it was eventually with Trinity, which slid into deficit. The author of a church history noted that many wealthy congregants started moving to Washington’s more fashionable western neighborhoods, their once-fine houses becoming occupied by “a floating population.”

In 1921, the church was converted to mission status, serving the impoverished of the Judiciary Square neighborhood.

While there may not have been souls that needed saving in that part of Washington, there certainly were cars that needed parking. In 1936, the Episcopal Diocese of Washington agreed to lease the 14,000-square-foot property to Auto City Parking for $50,000. On June 16, 1936, the last service was conducted at the church. Demolition began three months later.

“Many venerable parishioners have ‘raised Cain,’ to quote one church official, about the demolition of the old edifice,” wrote a Post reporter. “They’ve termed the destruction of the landmark ‘sacrilege, heartless and commercial.’ But a temple which doesn’t pay must fall.”

The story noted that “Memorial windows, fonts, chancels, pews and other valued interior furnishings were removed and given away to other local churches.”

And according to James M. Goode’s essential book “Capitol Losses: A Cultural History of Washington’s Destroyed Buildings,” the church’s Gothic foundation and piers — including the original cornerstone — were sold to a Camp Springs, Md., family for use in building a log cabin.

So maybe a little bit of Renwick’s church still remains.

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What’s your question about the Washington area? Send it to answerman@washpost.com. For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

 
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