It was red brick gingerbread, with a turret and a tower, funny angles and Gothic arches. It was the oldest building for three blocks in any direction. It has been the place of worship for four different congregations across 82 years.
But as of the week before Christmas, the 15th Street Presbyterian Church was gone fron its familiar roosts on the northeast corner of 15th and R streets NW. A snow-covered vacant lot is all that is there now. But if all goes according to schedule, the church will begin to be replaced in early February by . . .
Tear down a church to built another? Unusual as it may sound, that is precisely what this 450-member, 136,year-old congregation is doing. They will end up with a modern, $685,000 structure that, according to the pastor, the Rev. John Pharr, "will allow us to run the programs we want."
The new brick structure will be a shade of Colorado red quite a bit lighter than the nearest-rust of the old church. It will contain a new church hall, new offices for the pastor and his assistant and a multipurpose area taat will be used at first for preschool classes. The most striking feature of the new church will be a recessed stained-glass window over the main entrance facing the 15th Street.
The new church actually will seat fewer worshippers (366 compared with 470 in the old church), But it will provide almost twice as much usable space for other church programs such as the preschool, community meetings and individual counseling.
The accent is on the woprd "usable," for the old church had almost exactly as much square footage as the new one will have. The trouble was that much of it was in a basement below the sanctuary.
A furnace was there, too, and there were no fire escapes. So fire authorities refused to permit children or large groups to use the space, and the church leadership could not obtain government grants for the programs it wanted to run. To have added fire escapes and to have walled off the furnace that would cost "a large part of what we are spending for an entire new building," Pharr said.
But funds and space were not the only considerations in the congregation's decision to erect a new building.
"In addition to having the facilities that will help us do what we want," Pharr said, "there is the desire of our people to be able to say we did it on our own.
"In 136 years, this congregation has never built a church. We wanted to stay where we are."
Still, the congregation has gotten considerable criticism from conservation groups for its decision. Several dozeb letters and phone calls came throughout the fall, some from realtors who said a key attraction to amny prospective homebuyers in the immediate neighborhood was the chance to live near the picturesqeu old church.
Pharr said none of the protests was nasty. But none was taken into account, either.
"They were Johnny-come-latelies," he said. "We were too far down the road."
The congregation started down the road 17 years ago. It has taken that much time to raise funds for part of the new building's cost and to aarrange construction financing for the rest. Fifteenth Street Presbyterian has a loan from First Federal Savings and Loan of Washington, but Pharr would not disclose the amount.
"While some thought it was a crying shame to raze an old, historic building, the building wasn't as historic to us as people imagined," Pharr said.
The chief reason was that the Presbyterians was not the original occupants of the building. Foundry Methodists were. They built the church in 1895. Two other Methodist congregations occupied it before the Presbyterians arrived in 1918.
The congregations would have decided to built a new home elsewhere, perhaps in the suburbs, where all but about 30 members live. More than 100 Washington churches moved to the suburbs during the late 60s and early '70s.
"But we never really entertained that idea," Pharr said. "Why should we encourage our people to go to the suburbs? We have a commitment to do much of our work here in the neighborhood."
Once it begins, construction of the new church is expected to take about a year, Pharr said. For now, and during construction, the congregation will hold services at the Acacia Masonic Hall Temple, 10th and U streets NW. Pharr is temporarily working out a basement office at 1419 R St. NW.
"Sure, there's a lot of sentimentality involved in nlosing the old building," he said. "And we still have our doubting Thomases, although it's not much more than the usual grumbling about delays.
"But this will be one of our most meaningful projects. This to me becomes just as historic (as the old church). Now that it's gone, we don't want to lose our momentum."