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Congregation vs. Preservation: Two Perspectives on Sacred Space

Fortunately, historic preservation legislation anticipates the need for value judgments. Landmark designation of a building is not an irrevocable decision and does not necessarily prevent demolition. Owners can appeal decisions in the District to an administrative law judge -- the mayor's agent for historic preservation -- who is empowered to take into account more factors than the review board can.

The factor cited most often is extreme economic hardship because of the expense of restoring and reusing an obsolete structure or unreasonable decrease in a property's usefulness and market value because of the obstructive presence of a preserved landmark structure. Thus, in addition to filing suit in U.S. District Court based on protection of religious rights, the church has appealed the preservation review board's decision to the mayor's agent based on hardship.

Whatever the outcome, the church may prevail if the D.C. Council adopts proposed legislation that would exempt church property from landmark designation if that designation unreasonably infringes the exercise of religion. Like it or not, the Pei-Cossutta edifice may yet meet the wrecking ball, a regrettable outcome because publicly visible parts of the edifice could be saved, transformed and integrated into the property's redevelopment.

But this case will set no precedent. Imagine St. John's Church at 16th and H streets, a block away from the Christian Science building, somehow falling into disfavor and being proposed for demolition by its congregation. With its long history of serving presidents, its notable architects -- Benjamin Latrobe; James Renwick; McKim, Mead & White -- and its classical styling, demolition of this beloved landmark is not remotely thinkable.

In reality, some works of architecture are more sacred than others.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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