The crowded hearing had the air of a Baptist prayer meeting, with emotional accounts of travail and triumph and frequent responses from the audience. Scripture was quoted, and recorded choral music accompanied a slide presentation. Theology, sociology and history were invoked.
"Let the church stand," pleaded members and supporters of the Metropolitan Baptist Church as the Joint Committee on Historic Landmarks last week weighed the fate of the 100-year-old, red-brick sanctuary at 13th and R streets NW.
"Tear the church down," responded other members and the pastor, the Rev. H. Beecher Hicks Jr., who plan to build a new$3 million contemporary-style church on the site.
The dispute in one of Washington's biggest Baptist congregations and one of its oldest black churches is whether the 1882 Victorian Gothic building has the architectural and historical distinction to be declared a landmark. A staff report to the committee, a federal-city agency, has recommended against that status.
In hours of testimony, the committee was entreated by the Logan Circle Community Association, representing a nearby historic district and about 500 neighbors and church members, to let Metropolitan stand as a monument to the former slave field hands who built it and the pioneering black architect, Calvin T. S. Brent, who designed it.
With equal passion, Hicks, backed by a majority of the 2,500 church members, challenged the application as an interference in their longstanding rebuilding plans. Hicks said $1 million has been raised and $1.5 million more borrowed. He said the building is structurally unsound, termite-infested and inadequate for the church's numerous and growing activities.
If the building is declared a landmark, Metropolitan will lose nearly $500,000 already spent on "architectural and engineering fees, promotion and public relations," among other expenses, Hicks said after the meeting.
At the hearing, Hicks' supporters wore printed orange cards that said "A Legacy to Build On--A New Monument Must Rise." The phrase also was the theme for a slide show narrated by Hicks and accompanied by a recording of one of the church's choirs. Inside the church, the slogan is stretched across the pulpit on a huge sign.
"There are some things that are more important than landmarks, and that's human beings," member Martha Howard testified. As a member for 74 years, she said, she has watched the church deteriorate to the point where "if you go up around the pulpit and begin to shout a little, the vibration is so severe it takes your mind off the spirit."
But another longtime member, Wilma Harper, opposed razing the church. She said Metropolitan "would be going back to tear down what these ex-slaves built, like robbing the grave. We need houses. We need social services. We do not need a new church."
"In this house, we have worshiped; we have seen our children blessed as infants and consecrated in marriage," builder John A. Black told the committee and the audience of several hundred, many of them in hats and church-going dress. "We have bid farewell to loved ones and seen others born through baptism into the family of Christ. This is a sacred place of memory and a blessed place of hope."
The application to save the church called Metropolitan "an outstanding example of Victorian Gothic church architecture" and one of a dwindling number of such buildings in Washington. It should stand "as living proof that the poorest of the poor . . . could not only survive in a hostile environment but could improve their condition against great odds."
The congregation was organized as Fourth Baptist Church in 1863 by the Rev. Henry Bailey, a self-taught minister from Orange County, Va., and a few other escaped slaves who had fled to Washington during the Civil War.
In 20 years, these "illiterate and downtrodden refugees" had not only educated themselves but amassed the means to build "a handsome Victorian Gothic brick church valued at $60,000, a vast sum in 1882," the application stated.
At the hearing, Howard University historian Lillian Williams testified: "There are so few physical structures that are monuments to the social history of blacks." Metropolitan is a "monument to the efforts of former slaves and a symbol of black progress," as well as a "symbol of hope" to nearby depressed neighborhoods in the Shaw area, she said.
While Shiloh, John Wesley AME and other black churches founded after the Civil War bought sanctuaries vacated by whites, Metropolitan's congregation had "the audacity and courage" to build its own, and the "racial pride and confidence to choose a 28-year-old black architect to design its church," the landmark application said.
Brent, son of a founder of nearby John Wesley AME Church, "was one of the earliest if not the first" black architect in the United States, said historian Ruth Ann Overbeck, a Smithsonian Institution consultant. For that reason, Metropolitan is "not only of local import but becomes of national significance" because of Brent's "tremendous achievement."
The church's historical significance is disputed, however, by those who want it razed.
Metropolitan is neither the best example of its architecture nor the only example of Brent's work, said Keith Seay, the church's chief counsel and one of its three lawyers at the hearing from the prominent law firm of Hudson, Leftwich and Davenport.
Brent also designed St. Luke's Episcopal Church at 15th and Church streets, and Metropolitan is nearly identical in style to the recently restored Metropolitan AME Church at 15th and M streets NW, Seay said.
Attorney Ronald Jessamy pointedly asked preservation witnesses if they knew that the proposed new church also has black designers, the leading black architectural firm of Bryant and Bryant.
Architect Charles Bryant showed slides of Victorian and Gothic churches to demonstrate that Metropolitan is a pure example of neither.
To replace the church, Bryant's firm has designed a brick-paneled church with a 1,300-seat main sanctuary, a gymnasium and attached rectory and a 60-foot concrete bell tower. Two models of the proposal -- costing $5,000, Hicks said -- are displayed in the old church. The Sunday church program already bears an illustration of the "new Metropolitan."
"It's not fair to say we have not been mindful of history," Hicks said. The new building will incorporate the old church's 50-year-old organ (which is to be rebuilt), chandeliers, and beloved stained-glass windows.
Hicks said the structure "suffers seriously from problems of age" and lacks enough space for church activities; elderly members have difficulty climbing stairs to the second-floor sanctuary, he added.
The church set up a commission in 1978 to consider the options of "cosmetic renovation, thorough restoration or a new structure" for the building, Hicks said. "Any member of the congregation was invited to participate, and they studied for one year," he said. He said Logan Circle residents had an opportunity to object, but did not, when presented with the plans in 1980.
"We believe Logan Circle is really nothing more than a tool being used by this small group. . . . They're nothing more than pawns."
Thomas Lodge of the Logan Circle group said the preservationists have "considerably more support for our position than could be shown. . . . A lot of people within the church did not want to get on the wrong side of the minister."
City Council member Betty Ann Kane, Joe Grano, leader of an effort to save Rhodes Tavern, and other civic leaders were among 500 persons who signed petitions to save the church.
Hayden C. Johnson, an attorney who is a grandson of the church's turn-of-the century pastor, said the financial sacrifice made by his grandfather, who mortgaged his houses to keep the church going, warrants saving the church. "I can't see how tearing this church down can be financially" practical, Johnson said.
Architect Robert J. Nash, who has built or renovated 55 "religious structures" here, said that despite its structural defects the church can be renovated. "I don't believe it would cost more to preserve it than to build a new structure," he said.
Hicks later said Nash was one of five architects considered for the new church but was not selected. "Mr. Nash's own engineering study said 'the church is a firetrap,' " Hicks said after the hearing. "So I'm not sure to what extent Mr. Nash's statement is really sour grapes," he said.
Responding to Hicks' comment, Nash said his firm did declare the church a fire hazard, but the church is, nevertheless, "restorable." Wooden structures could be replaced with steel or concrete "to make it fire-safe," he said.
His testimony in support of preservation was "not a matter of sour grapes. We compete all the time with Bryant and Bryant . He wins some, I win some. We have plenty of work," said Nash, who recently designed the $5 million Family Life Center at Shiloh Baptist Church.
"The church is not split" over preservation of the building, Hicks emphasized. "The church is a family and within the most harmonious families there does come a time when there are differences of opinion."
He said he has told the dissenters "it is possible to come home, to return to the fold. I told them we've already ordered a pew for them" in the new church.
Making Metropolitan a landmark would be government interference, Hicks charged. "What it does is effectively take over control of our property. . . . Black folk are once again are being run up the wall."
The committee on landmarks probably will make its decision on Metropolitan within a month, a staff member said. The decision is final.
If landmark status is denied, the demolition and rebuilding will start "the next day," Hicks said. "We've simply decided that in the face of a storm we're going to lift a sail and move forward." CAPTION: Picture 1, The Victorian Gothic, century-old Metropolitan Baptist Church, 13th and R Streets NW.; Picture 2, The Rev. H. Beecher Hicks Jr. inside the church he favors razing and replacing with a $3 million, contemporary-style building.; Picture 3, Model of the $3 million structure, which includes a 1,300-seat sanctuary, gym, rectory and 60-foot bell tower, proposed to replace the church. Photos by JOEL RICHARDSON -- The Washington Post