The Joint Committee on Landmarks yesterday denied historic landmark status to Metropolitan Baptist Church, one of Washington's oldest black churches and home to one of the city's largest Baptist congregations, clearing the way for the century-old building at 1225 R St. NW to be demolished and replaced with a new church.
An intense, emotional debate over the future of Metropolitan peaked last month at a hearing before the Joint Committee, with one group of church members arguing that Metropolitan should be saved as a monument to black achievement and another group contending that a new building is needed.
Supporters of the landmark application, led by the Logan Circle Community Association, contended that the church should be preserved in tribute to its designer, Calvin T.S. Brent, one of the first black architects in the U.S., who also designed St. Luke's Episcopal Church on nearby 15th Street.
Moreover, supporters argued, financing and erecting the church was a major feat for illiterate, downtrodden field hands who had been Civil War refugees from slave states.
Metropolitan's pastor, the Rev. H. Beecher Hicks, backed by what he said is "an overwhelming majority" of church members, said landmark designation would interrupt four years of planning for a new $3 million church building on the site and cause them to forfeit some $500,000 already spent on those plans. Metropolitan's architecture is not a pure example of its Victorian Gothic type, nor is it the best example of such in the city, they argued.
The Joint Committee, the federal-city panel authorized to protect Washington's historical edifices, concluded in its 6-to-4 decision that Metropolitan is "of no significance to the development, history, or black culture of Washington or the nation," refuting the claim that the church's architectural and historical uniqueness merited landmark designation.
Preservation advocates, who maintain that no democratic vote has ever been taken on the matter among Metropolitan's 2,500 members, vowed afterward to continue their fight.
"No, indeed, we haven't given up," said Wilma Harper, who organized an ad hoc committee to save the church. "The larger number of members still consider Metropolitan a historical site, whether the city does or not." She did not say what course of action her group might take to try to block Hicks' plan.
Hicks declared the Joint Committee's decision "the last hurdle" in the way of tearing the church down. He said the vote will release a building permit that had been deferred pending resolution of the landmark issue and allow construction to begin "immediately. It would be my hope that now it would no longer be a matter for public debate," Hicks said. "The committee has acted, the church has exercised its will and the matter has been resolved."
Harper said her committee is concerned that the decision was influenced by Mayor Marion Barry, who she said made "gratuitous statements" in favor of tearing the church down from Metropolitan's pulpit while the application was under consideration.
Barry's press secretary, Annette Samuels, said the mayor "was not in any way involved or in touch with the Joint Committee and that was apparently a decision that they made independently, based on the facts." CAPTION: Picture 1, THE REV. H. BEECHER HICKS . . . wants new church building; Picture 2, model of the new church building. Some $500,000 has already been spent on plans. Photos by Joel Richardson -- The Washington Pot