By Marc Fisher
Thursday, November 1, 2007
Two blocks from the White House, there is a concrete fortress that looks like a top-secret government installation. Set back on a barren plaza frequented mainly by homeless men in search of a restroom, the building faces 16th Street NW with dirty, rough, blank walls. Amazingly, this building is a church -- probably the city's most unfriendly and depressing piece of spiritual architecture.
The District government proposes to declare this atrocity a historic landmark.
Never mind that the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, is only 36 years old, and its members never liked the design. Never mind that when it was built, then-Washington Post architecture critic Wolf von Eckardt called it "rude and disorderly," a brutal, uncivilized and inappropriate intrusion on the approach to the White House. Never mind that the Dupont Circle neighborhood commission recently voted unanimously to oppose historic status for the church. Never mind that Christian Science is a declining denomination that has cut its staff and budget by nearly half and is selling off some of its most valuable properties. Never mind that this downtown congregation's few dozen members want to raze the concrete pillbox and replace its 400-seat sanctuary with a new, more intimate home.
"It is always with reluctance, and fairly rarely, that we recommend a designation over an owner's objection," says a staff report from the city's Historic Preservation Office to be presented today to the preservation review board. But that's exactly what the city now proposes to do, freezing plans by a developer to create a mixed-use building that could include a small church for the Christian Scientists.
The city has kept this issue alive for nearly two decades and untold billable hours -- isn't this a fabulous town in which to be a lawyer? -- despite admitting in its own report that the building is an inflexible space and that there are "practical issues with condition and maintenance." Such as the fact that church members say it costs $8,000 to change a light bulb in the sanctuary because scaffolding must be erected.
The preservation report admits that the church plaza, as Eckardt predicted, "did prove a failure" in that nobody except the occasional homeless person ever uses it, and then mainly to urinate in the dark, narrow alley behind the building.
But hey, why should a building actually be usable if it can somehow be shoehorned into an esoteric, academic definition of a landmark?
The city staff calls the church "one of the best examples of Brutalism in the Washington area." That must be cheering to the souls who might wander into the church seeking spiritual uplift. Sorry for your pains, my good man, won't you enter our dark, forbidding chamber and soak in our Brutalism?
For those of us who may not be professional architects, Brutalism is "the use of exposed, unadorned, roughly cast concrete to construct buildings of 'stark forms and raw surfaces,' " the city report says with great admiration.
What the preservationists don't get is that the Christian Science complex -- there's also a small office building across the courtyard -- is a failure, a design flaw that begs to be blown to bits.
That doesn't make Washington a town of philistines with no place for modernist or mid-century design. I.M. Pei's East Wing of the National Gallery is both architecturally important and enormously popular. The District properly landmarked the Uline Arena, the sadly neglected concrete building in Northeast where the Beatles made their North American concert debut.
But what if the members of a church do not want to worship in a place that is "brooding, inward-looking," as former Post architecture critic Ben Forgey put it in a piece quoted favorably in the city report. What if they, as the church's lay leader, Darrow Kirkpatrick, says, "want the freedom to have a facility that best meets our needs and our sense of service"?
Shouldn't a church have the right to choose its own architectural message -- and how to spend its own money? "In this case, we don't feel the form follows the function," Kirkpatrick says. Most Christian Science churches are built either in the New England Congregational style (there's one on Massachusetts Avenue NW in American University Park) or in the Romanesque manner of the faith's Mother Church in Boston (like one on Euclid Street NW in Adams Morgan).
Nothing in Christian Science theology supports the idea of a church as a windowless fortress. And from the start, church records show, members wanted a "useful, practical building rather than a prestigious structure."
The preservationists who are rallying to save a church from its members are right to be concerned about a site two blocks from the White House. What goes there is the business not only of developers and their clients but also of anyone who cares about the city. If the church were replaced by a standard K Street box, that would indeed be a loss. But the answer is not to cling to a failure; rather, it is to seek something different, a bold new twist on the visual message of the approach to the president's house.
Alas, to preservation extremists, a city is not a living, evolving organism but a museum piece in need of being encased in government protection. No wonder they're so eager to save a bunker.
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