The Christian Embassy, an evangelical group whose goal is to lead top government officials into a "personal relationship with Christ," is trying to buy the palatial $3 million, 34-room Archbold mansion in Northwest Washington for use as a religious conference center.
The plan, in preliminary stages, has generated intense interest and some concern among homeowners in neighboring Burleith and Glover Park and in the newly developed 42-acre Hillandale estate, where the mansion built in 1921 by Standard Oil heiress Anne Archbold sits on a rustic hilltop overlooking the city.
"We have some concerns," said Robert McFadden, chairman of the Burleith Citizens Association's zoning committee. Neighbors want to know what kind of functions the Christian Embassy will conduct at the Florentine-style villa, how much traffic the group will generate, how many people will work or live there and what exactly the group's mission is in Washington, said McFadden, a trade association lobbyist who has lived in the handsome neighborhood north of Georgetown for 15 years.
The beautifully wooded Hillandale estate, with majestic stands of oak and poplar trees, is one of the highest points in the city, offering a scenic vista of the capital. On the slope beneath the mansion, 54 newly built town houses have been carved out, and 33 more of the 238 planned total are under construction. A new French embassy complex also is being built on Reservoir Road NW on land that was formerly also part of the Archbold holdings.
Hillandale, the Archbold's estate, was the largest single piece of residential property in Washington and, before it was subdivided, also was the most valuable single residential property in the city, assessed at $5.9 million last October.
Hillandale Development Corp., headed by Texan Clint Murchison, owner of the Dallas Cowboys football team, has divided up the estate with clusters of the luxury town houses that sell for $295,000 to $475,000 each.
The company also has been trying since 1978 to sell the Archbold mansion, which has 12 bedrooms, 10 bathrooms and spacious ballrooms and dining rooms that recall the lavishness and elegance of the Roaring '20s. The mansion was a gathering place of Washington's elite, entertaining noted visitors, such as Gertrude Stein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Leopold Stokowski and many others.
Neighboring Burleith, a tree-lined enclave of handsome row houses that average more than $150,000 in assessed value, is sandwiched between Georgetown University, the Hillandale estate, Whitehaven Park and 35th Street NW. Primarily a young, professional community of about 500 homes, Burleith is a fairly close-knit neighborhood, with one of the city's oldest and most active citizens associations. That association is now concerned about preserving the peace and quiet.
"We have always lived with the university and the Georgetown hospital, but suddenly we have the new French embassy knocking on your door," said Patricia Scolaro, a personnel consultant who represents Burleith on Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3B.
With many of the hundreds of French embassy employes expected to drive through the area, Scolaro said, neighbors are concerned the Christian Embassy proposal will add congestion to the neighborhood's narrow streets.
The Christian Embassy, which has offices in Arlington, plans to use the mansion for small luncheons, seminars and other gatherings "with the obvious mission to advance the word of their religious teachings," said Phil Feola, a zoning lawyer with the firm of Linowes and Blocher, hired by the group to handle the planned purchase.
On occasion, Feola said, the group might also entertain overnight guests, although the mansion would not be used as a residence. The only resident probably would be a live-in caretaker.
As to the potential for traffic generated by visitors, Feola said, "the issues of how manypeople, how many times a day, how often, how big a staff--those things are all negotiable."
Representatives of the Christian Embassy were not available for comment.
The Christian Embassy was founded in 1976 as an offshoot of the Campus Crusade for Christ International, which claims more than 15,000 staff members in 150 countries.
The organization's mission is to offer spiritual guidance to members of Congress, their families and aides, Pentagon officers and diplomats, delivering their religious message through Bible classes, luncheons, dinners, prayer meetings and other contacts.
"They think of themselves as being the representatives of the kingdom of Christ in the nation," Richard Halverson, the Senate chaplain, said last year. Halverson, himself an evangelical appointed by the Republican majority, described the Christian Embassy as "the most aggressive evangelical organization I know."
In its literature, the group lists among its international executive committee: former movie star cowboy Roy Rogers, Texas billionaire Nelson Bunker Hunt, Sen. William L. Armstrong (R-Colo.), J.C. Penney chairman and chief executive Donald V. Seibert and Murchison and his wife Ann.
The Christian Embassy originally planned to use the Chase mansion in Northwest as its conference center but sold the property in 1978 because of problems getting Zoning Commission approval.
Last April, the group also dropped plans to build a center on a five-acre site in McLean after the plan was voted down by the McLean Citizens Association.
For the Hillandale Corp. to sell the Archbold mansion to the Christian Embassy, the company must get Zoning Commission approval for a change in its original 1979 Planned Unit Development (PUD) application. According to that plan, which called for construction of the 238 town houses and 28 detached houses, the Archbold mansion was to remain a residence. To use it as an office or conference center instead requires commission approval.
The Burleith Citizens Association is scheduled to discuss the plan with representatives of the Christian Embassy and Hillandale Corp. at its monthly meeting Tuesday, and Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3B is expected to consider it next Wednesday.
Representatives of both the developers and the Christian Embassy already have met several times with the citizens groups and said they are hopeful the neighbors will support the proposal during the Zoning Commission deliberations.
"I think they will make good neighbors," said Michael Gulino, a vice president of Hillandale Corp. who also lives in one of the firm's luxury town houses.
Gulino said the conference center would not generate substantially more traffic than the mansion would if used as a residence.
"There is a certain amount of character and charm that will stay with the mansion," he said. "There is a serenity to this hillside up here that we expect will be enhanced."
Some of the neighbors disagree with Gulino. "I think the Christian Embassy will generate a lot of traffic, and it could also impact on Glover Park," said Mark Looney, who represents that neighborhood on ANC 3B.
Because of the Christian Embassy's affiliation with the Campus Crusade for Christ, some residents envision the neighborhood and Glover-Archbold Park being overrun with visiting students, Looney said.
Hillandale Development initially ran into some neighborhood opposition because its subdivision plan and accompanying road-building destroyed considerable vegetation in a spot popular for its wildlife and bird watching. But Gulino said the firm has gone out of its way to preserve as much vegetation and tree cover as possible and has planted 60 varieties of trees and shrubs.
"We have built a good relationship with Burleith," said Gulino, who added he was hopeful the community would support the new plan for the mansion.
Feola described the relationship between the Christian Embassy and the surrounding neighborhoods as "guarded."
There were a lot ofvery apprehensive feelings in the neighborhood, I think justly so," the group's lawyer said. " 'Who are these people? What do they do?'_ But those kinds of concerns have somewhat abated" since Christian Embassy spokesmen have informally outlined their plans for neighbors.
The Christian Embassy "would not want to move in, with hostile neighbors," he added. "Unlike a typical commercial developer who goes in, builds and moves out, they plan to stay there maybe 40 years. The Christian Embassy might not want to go in there if they face any hostility."