After nearly two years of hearings and negotiations on its plans to build an educational building, the Brown Memorial AME Church on Capitol Hill has agreed to preserve two of four rowhouses, which church officials wanted to demolish, it the church can obtain a historic preservation grant.
The church, at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NE, has decided to incorporate the facades of two Victorian rowhouses at 1361 and 1363 Constitution Ave. NE into the new education building. Two other 19th Century rowhouses on North Carolina Avenue will be torn down, but their facades will be closely copied in the new structure. The space between the houses will be filled in, and the result will be a three-story building with classrooms, storage space and a caretaker's apartment.
The plan is contingent on obtaining a grant of about $20,000, according to the church's lawyer, Charles Donnenfeld. This represents about half the added cost of preserving the two buildings, he said.
The church originally planned to tear down all four houses. But when church officials applied for demolition permits in September 1976, the Capitol Hill Historic District, which includes the four houses, had just been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That fact set in motion a series of hearings that resulted in a 180-day delay in demolition.
At a hearing before the State Historic Preservation Officer in November 1976, church trustee William Bousch rejected preservationists' suggestions that the church try to adapt the houses to educational use. He said the houses had deteriorated too badly.
"Why would we pick a sore and let it burst on us and then keep on applying applications to make it correct?" asked Bousch. "To build this educational building . . . and put something nice there - this would be an asset to the District of Columbia."
But Henry Brylawski, chairman of the Joint Committee on Landmarks, which recommended the delay in demolition, told the same hearing that "the demolition of the two eastern-most row houses on North Carolina and Constitution avenues would truncate both rows of houses and would be detrimental to the quality and character of the historic district."
During the delay period, William Fox, an architect hired by the church, conducted a feasibility study to see if the rowhouses could be joined to form the education building. Fox concluded that it could not be done, largely because floor and window levels of the houses on the two streets were incompatible. After a series of discussions, city officials and preservationists accepted Fox's conclusion.
"I'm convinced they took a serious look at preserving these buildings," said Nancy Taylor, a member of the staff of the State Historic Preservation Office. "Now they have a nice plan that will fit in with the existing rowhouses."
"We were able to share with the church the feeling of the community that restoration is a viable alternative to demolition," said Douglas Wheeler, who participated in the discussions as a representative of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society.
"We compromised with community organizations because we want to maintain harmony with the community," said Alexander Medley, chairman of the church building committee.
According to attorney Donnenfeld the church's plans are contingent not only on receiving the historic preservation grant for which the church applied but on receiving clearance from the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA). The church needs a variance because the proposed building will take in a greater percentage of the lot than is normally allowed. Last week, the BZA delayed action on the variance.
After the 180 days, the church could have stopped talking with the community and torn down the builings. Donnenfeld said. "But, after all, it's a church."