Church Gets Landmark Status Over Congregation's Objections

Members of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, wanted to replace this church building with a cozier one.
Members of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, wanted to replace this church building with a cozier one. (The Washington Post)
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 6, 2007; 4:57 PM

The District government conferred landmark status on a 36-year-old downtown church today despite impassioned opposition from congregants and community leaders who dismiss the building as an architectural blight.

The Historic Preservation Review Board's 7-0 ruling bars the Third Church of Christ Scientist from redeveloping their fortress-like sanctuary on 16th Street NW, two blocks north of the White House.

While several preservation board members expressed reservations about the church's modernist appearance, they said the building is among the city's most significant examples of Brutalism, an architectural movement of the 1950's and 1960's that espoused the use of roughly cast concrete.

The church was designed by Araldo Cossutta, who worked with renowned architect I.M. Pei's firm.

"Preservation isn't always about whether we like and not like buildings," board member Denise Johnson told the audience at the hearing before voting. "You can learn enough to have an appreciation for it."

Congregants said they were unsure whether they would appeal the ruling to preserve their home, an octagonal concrete structure, with high, windowless walls, standing on a spare, unadorned plaza.

But they also said that it may be too costly to repair a 400-seat sanctuary that's no longer suitable for a church that typically draws 40-60 Sunday worshipers.

"We know of no way to adapt the building to meet our needs," said Darrow Kirkpatrick, a congregant who testified against designating the church a landmark. "It's not a welcoming building."

Prior to the hearing, the Becket Fund, a public interest law firm that defends the free expression of all religious traditions, notified the board that it would consider legal action if the board voted to landmark the church.

Roger Severino, legal counsel to the fund, said in an interview that the District, by preventing the congregation from demolishing its sanctuary, was "imposing a substantial burden on religious expression," a violation of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

"We have let HPRB know that it is treading on dangerous ground," Severino said.

Tersh Boasberg, preservation board's chair, said during the hearing that the board would not address First Amendment issues in its assessment of the church's architecture.

Instead, he said, the board would base its ruling on whether the church's architecture is historically significant.

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