Congregation vs. Preservation: Two Perspectives on Sacred Space

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, September 13, 2008

In real estate, few laws provoke as much controversy and litigation as those concerned with historic preservation of architectural landmarks.

Owners cringe whenever someone suggests that an obsolete structure might be eligible for landmark designation, potentially impeding demolition and constraining development.

Witness the latest chapter in the continuing saga of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, which seeks to demolish its edifice at the corner of 16th and I streets NW in downtown Washington. In December, the District's Historic Preservation Review Board voted to declare the building a landmark and oppose demolition. Last month, the church filed suit in federal court, seeking an injunction against landmark designation, claiming that it violates religious rights protected by the Constitution and federal law.

Church members, along with many local residents, profoundly dislike the building, which was designed in 1970 by Araldo Cossutta, a respected architect and member of I.M. Pei's firm. The congregation has no love for the octagonal, concrete sanctuary, which is much too large for it.

From the congregation's perspective, government is unfairly forcing worship in a building that is dysfunctional, ugly and burdensome to maintain.

By contrast, in designating landmarks, the preservation board by law must assess a building's historic significance attributable to its architectural, cultural, social or political importance. The way the building functions now is secondary, as are economic potential, the sentiments of the owners and the personal opinions of the board members about a building's style.

Supported by many architects and architectural historians, the board considered the evidence and judged the church to be a meritorious example, unique in the nation's capital, of a once-avant-garde architectural style known as brutalism.

Typified by bold massing, exposed structural concrete and absence of ornamentation, brutalism represents a distinct but short-lived period in 20th-century architecture. Like other discarded aesthetic philosophies, brutalism seemed like a good idea at the time. Under the law and historic preservation criteria, the church's design and its place in the evolving culture of architecture were sufficient to justify landmark status.

The plaintiff and the defendant are dueling over conflicting public policies. On the one hand are laws guaranteeing free exercise of religion and requiring government to show compelling reasons for actions encroaching on religious freedom. On the other hand are laws enabling preservation of the nation's heritage, whether works of architecture, battlefields, bridges or neighborhoods.

The church argues that laws preserving religious rights outweigh laws preserving architecture.

Who should prevail? Your answer may depend less on analysis of the law than on how you feel about the dueling principles and the church's plight.

If you are a devoted architecture fan or believe that church real estate should be treated like other real estate, you might support the preservation review board's decision. If instead you sympathize with the congregation, and also share its intense dislike of the building, you probably question the board's action. Whatever your opinion, settling this case requires a value judgment, not just a fact-based legal judgment.

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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