From the road, the Old Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria looks simple enough. Four brick walls meet under one pitched roof. Yet swirling around the old structure is an angry debate over whether it should be torn down.
Those who favor demolition include most of the members of the congregation, who have built a new church next door and want to use the land for parking, as required by the city. Those trying to save the building include some members of the almost all-black church, along with other preservationists in both the black and white communities.
The decision eventually must be made by the city council, whose members are not looking forward to the task.
"In more than five terms on the council, I have never seen a more sticky issue," said Mayor Charles E. Beatley. "It is a no-win situation that most will see as a racial decision.
"Either way, the council will lose," he added. "If we give permission to demolish, we will be accused of disregarding black heritage. If we don't, we face reversing a previous commitment and causing an irreparable split within the black congregation.
"It is an imponderable situation."
The council's only black member, Nelson Greene, echoed Beatley's concern.
"This is an extremely difficult question because I am in favor of preserving anything that has to do with black heritage and I'm not concerned about the cost, because we (the city) haven't spent any money for the preservation of black history," Green said."But I haven't made up my mind how I'm going to vote. . . We had made a commitment. hI do not know what to do."
A key question in the dispute is the age of the old church.
Alexandria regulations prevent the demolition of some structures more than 100 years old. An architect hired by the church set the age of the building at about 90 years. However, preservationists apparently have discovered evidence indicating that the building was built in the 1850s.
The findings have caused city officials to withdraw, in effect, the two-year old approval of demolition. Without the parking, the church cannot open as scheduled Dec. 28.
Alexandria City Council is scheduled to consider the matter Dec. 9. Council members have indicated that they expect to grant the church a temporary occupancy permit and postpone a decision on demolition.
"Would you tear down the Washington Monument to build a parking lot?" demanded Greenfair Moses, a member of the Quiet Fire repertory group. "If you tear down this building, you are not only destroying an old structure. You will be tearing down our history and you will be throwing away whatever blackness our children may have."
Yet church members argue that to back away now would be to renege on a commitment made two years ago by the city that the building could be demolished.
"From the beginning, we patiently accepted each task that was put before us . . . each application for approved from the city, each license, each requirement from the housing authority, each detail was fully met," said Richard Wair, a deacon whose family have been church members for five generations.
"We have scrimped and saved pennies, dimes, quarters, and dollars to build a new church and we are ready to move, but the anti-demolitionists won't let us. I ask each member of the council, is it fair?"
The church's efforts to replace its old building hit a snag in 1975, when the city passed an ordinance forbidding destruction of city-owned buildings more than a 100 years old.
Upon passage of the ordinance, the congregation hired an architect who established the age of the building to be about 90 years.On the strength the architect's testimony, a demolition permit was granted and construction begun.
Early this year a group outside the congregation researched the history of the building and discovered newspaper reports indicating that the present building was built in the 1850s. With this information, city officials say, they had no choice but to withdraw the demolition permit.
Church members however, reject this explanation.
"If these objections had come forth before andy contracts were signed and construction begun, it would be a different story," complained the Rev. John O. Peterson, pastor of the church. "This (the construction and demolition) has been no secret. And now, at this 11th-plus hour, we are the victims of white preservationists who were able to spur a few members of the church."
Peterson and other members of the congregation contend that white leaders of the Alexandria Society for the Preservation of Black Heritage -- in particular Robert Montague -- will benefit if the church is not demolished. As evidence, they point to a $2,000 grant the group has received. Montague is the attorney for the group.
"He doesn't care if the church is divided, all he wants are his lawyer's fees," Peterson said.
Montague denied that his interests are purely financial. He said he had received about $600 in fees and that the $2,000 grant had yet to be spent.
"I thing Rev. Peterson's comment is totally inappropriate," Monague said.
"He is being paid for being the minister of the Alfred Street Baptist Church. And I am being paid (for my work). I don't really see the difference."
If the city council votes to preserve the church, some have suggested that the city move the building, turn it into a black museum or sell it to developers who could convert it into condominiums.
Turning the old church into a museum would cost $500,000 or more, while moving it to another city-owned site in the area would cost more than $1 million dollars, city officials estimate.