In November 1974, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints consecrated its Washington Temple on a hill in Kensington. The inhabitants saw it -- they could hardly avoid seeing this 288-foot skyscraper, a shaft of white marble and six gold spires soaring higher than the Washington Monument -- as just another act of God. On the temple's 10th anniversary, it remains an architectural curiosity to many, an eyesore to a few, a revelation to motorists on the Capital Beltway and a holy citadel to faithful Mormons -- the only group permitted inside.
The devotees of CB radio have dubbed it "Disneyland." A few wags call it "Oz." ("Release Dorothy," somebody once spray-painted on a beltway overpass.) To WRC-AM traffic reporter Bruce Alan, it's "the ideal landmark" for his rush-hour bulletins. And to a band of young playmates in Kensington, it's the mysterious "Witch's Castle."
"Sometimes we get scared," says 7-year-old Zachary Hart, one of a group of kids who admit to sneaking through the chain-link fence that separates the 57-acre temple compound from suburbia. "But when we're bored and we don't know what to do, we just go back up to the temple."
"Every time we go up there," adds 10-year-old Michael Hodge, Zachary's cousin, "we manage to see something new."
And yet, judging from a stroll through the prosperous neighborhood of Rock Creek Hills, where the temple presides over earth and sky, the people who live in its shadow have grown accustomed to its fac,ade. Indeed, some speak of it with admiration, while others seem to accept it simply because it's there.
"I'm sort of attached to it," says Gordon Lill, a grandfatherly fellow pushing a lawn mower in front of his house on Hillridge Drive. The temple looms on his leafy horizon like a fierce white cloud. "Besides, maybe some day a rich Mormon will come by and offer me a lot of money for my house."
"It's not my favorite example of church architecture," says Lill's neighbor Ruby Armstrong, whose delicately trimmed backyard boasts another good view, "but I think it's quite beautiful. And it's better than high-rise apartments."
Down the street, real estate agents Harriet and Don May are hosting an open house. "I can tell you that we have had not one person even mention it to us," Harriet May says. "Nor have any homeowners questioned us about whether it helps or hinders a sale." Her husband adds, "I think the gigantic radio towers you see around town are much more hideous than a gorgeous white temple."
The handsome colonial of the Hart family sits right on the edge of the temple grounds, at the bottom of a tree-covered slope. "When all the leaves are off the trees, oh my God, it's like right here," says Janet Hart, mother of the aforementioned Zachary. "And at night, with the floodlights, it's a fairyland."
"Certainly not run-of-the-mill," says Herb Storey, who lives across from Hart on Calvend Lane, a few hundred yards below the temple. "It's inspiring when you see it coming out of the trees ahead of you."
Storey's neighbor Wendell Eames, a Mormon and a former president of the temple, says, "I can assure you it's made of the very best materials. It's the House of the Lord, so it's built to last." Which may come as good news to just about, though not quite, everyone in the neighborhood.
Leo Fischer, who lives across the street from Eames, complains, "It's caused havoc with our television reception. It cost me $450 to install an antenna and we still have problems. We used to get all the Baltimore channels. We don't get Baltimore now." And yet, Fischer concedes, "Anybody who denies that it's beautiful is a fool."
Some residents see the temple as Kensington's answer to the Cathedral of Rouen -- which Claude Monet painted again and again, under different conditions and at different times of day, in his famous studies of changing light and color.
For at least one neighborhood couple, who asked not to be named, it's even better than Rouen. It fills their picture window. "Often at sunset it'll be pink, and then at night it'll take on a bluish tinge," says the husband, a government geologist. And it serves a function that maybe the teetotaling Mormons didn't consider.
"When people come over for dinner," says the wife, a social worker, "we like to turn out all the lights and pull the draperies open. Then we can enjoy just a spectacular view with our cocktails."