There really haven't been any problems with the arrangement. That is, unless you count the time Larry Hamblett decided to rev up a 3,000-horsepower race car engine in his Rosslyn Exxon station while a minister was conducting a wedding in the church upstairs.
A deafening roar erupted in the church just as the Rev. Jack C. Sawyer was saying, " . . . speak now or forever hold your peace." Everyone thought it was a real nice wedding just the same. It took only a few minutes for somebody to run downstairs to the gas station and get the thing shut off.
The formal name of the squat grey brick structure is the Arlington Temple United Methodist Church, but the thousands of office workers who pass it every day affectionately call it "Our Lady of Exxon" in honor of the filling station nestled between two tiny red, white and blue Exxon signs on the ground floor.
"I told them, if they can pump as much downstairs as we're pumping upstairs, they're doing all right," said Dr. James L. Robertson, the church's founding minister.
Wedged in among Rosslyn's concrete and glass behemoths, at the corner where Nash Street, Fort Myer Drive and Key Boulevard converge, the Arlington Temple is, as far as anyone knows, the only combination church and filling station in the United States. It is the product of a deal made long ago between a forward-looking businessman and a local minister yearning for a place to house his congregation.
During the early 1960s, as developers started razing Rosslyn's pawn shops and decaying homes, Robertson was trying to set up a Methodist church in what he thought would soon become Northern Virginia's busiest commercial district. His fledgling congregation met in offices, private homes, a carpenter shop and even a motel.
William P. Ames had dreams of building a high-rise hotel on part of his Rosslyn lumber yard and donating another part of it for a church in memory of his father. Trouble was, he had a gas station sitting on part of the hotel parcel. So he and Robertson cut a deal around 1968: Ames donated the land; the church agreed to rent its ground floor to the gasoline station, and the Hyatt Arlington was built on Ames' land down the block.
In 1971, when its spire first rose five stories high, Arlington Temple was the tallest building in Rosslyn. Nowadays, it stands in the shadow of the huge USA Today building, flanked by the Holiday Inn and offices housing State Department and CIA workers. Jets headed for National Airport fly high above the spire and below, the subway throbs.
Inside the peaceful nave of Arlington Temple, with its 500 plush-covered seats and brass collection plates, there usually is no hint of the activity outside. Eighteen-inch floors and walls muffle sounds, and large paintings take the place of windows that could let in noise.
Hamblett, who was raised an Episcopalian but usually goes to soccer games instead of church on Sunday, runs the station and said he is being more careful about noise since the wedding. "If I hear organ music, I try to keep the noise down," he said.
Yet the gas station is integral to the life of the church. Its rent amounts to $18,000 a year, or about half the annual mortgage payments on the $750,000 building. Dr. Robertson said he doesn't know how much the land is worth anymore. It was selling for $2 a square foot back when Ames donated it. Nowadays, Robertson said, the value is closer to $56 a foot.
A few years ago, during the gasoline crisis, Hamblett opened the station after services for a few weeks so that church members could fuel up without waiting in long lines. Sawyer, who is 37 and often goes about his daily chores in blue jeans, traded his black clerical robes for overalls and helped pump.
Someone else passed out the church bulletin to all the motorists waiting for gas--whether they were members or not.
The gas station downstairs may look strange to some, but members of the congregation say it is almost symbolic of their mission in the bustling Rosslyn community. They use exercise classes, foreign policy lectures, counseling, child care and a host of other gambits to carry their message to the office workers around them. "We want people to know that the church is a part of the world, not separate from it," said Sawyer.
And all of that is just fine with their neighbor downstairs. "We get along real well," said Hamblett. "They don't let their business interfere with my business, and I don't let mine interfere with theirs."