The Rev. Harold Trammell, a Capitol Hill Baptist minister, who recently saw his hopes for a new church building dashed by opposition from neighborhood preservationists and some disgruntled former parishioners, now must decide whether to restore the crumbling, 99-year-old building or move from the site that the congregation has occupied for more than a century.
Last month Trammell and the Mount Jezreel Baptist church lost their bid to tear down the Romanesque building at 500 E St. SE and replace it with a new and larger building. Their demolition request was rejected because the church is located in the Capitol Hill historic district.
The city's Joint Commission of Landmarks, which must approve even the smallest building changes in these districts, ruled that the church has historical significance although its facade has been covered with artificial stone.
The church's fate has spawned a community confrontation that pits Trammell and his black congregation, who argue that they desperately need a new church, against the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, a largely white group that has argued successfully that the present building is historically important, and a group of former parishioners ousted from the church for criticizing Trammell and the demolition plans.
The battle marks at least the fourth time in four years that black churches on Capitol Hill have been involved in similiar controversies with the restoration society.
"These people think a little building is more important than the needs of a large group of people," said Trammell. "They would just as soon see us sell the building and leave the neighborhood. It's called 'gentrification.' "
Gentrification is a process in which the more affluent, who are usually white, move into previously undesirable neighborhoods replacing the poorer residents, who in Washington are usually black.
Trammell termed it ironic that a predominantly white preservationist group would override the desires of his totally black congregation in the name of black history.
Ruth Ann Overbeck, a social historian and member of the restoration society board, said, however, that the church is "one of the few vital landmarks from the black community of the l9th century. It attests to these people's ability to survive social and economic sanctions and overcome a life style that began with slavery."
Sharon Abramson Nelson, chairwoman of the Capitol Hill Advisory Neighborhood Commission, denied that opposition to the demolition was racially motivated.
"It just so happens that I'm white, that the Capitol Hill Restoration Society is mostly white and that the ANC is white--well, about 50 percent," she said. "But you also have to take into consideration that the Christians Without a Home the ousted church members are black." She is the lawyer for the ousted members.
The struggle over the church began last summer, when Mount Jezreel church officials applied for a demolition permit stating that the building was too small to seat its growing congregation of 700 and unsafe due to water damage and termite infestation.
"Only the good Lord is holding the roof up," Trammell said. The building's support beams are leaning and its floors are sinking, attesting to a hundred years of abusive weather, he said.
The congregation, anticipating demolition, left the building last September and started worshiping at Faith Baptist Church located about four blocks away at Ninth Street and South Carolina Avenue SE.
During three days of hearings last month before the joint committee, the cost of restoration versus new construction was hotly debated.
Architects and engineers employed by the church testified that the building in its present state is unsafe and that restoration would cost about $900,000. They added that it would be more expensive to buy a new building and cited Faith Baptist, which is for sale at $990,000 but in need of $300,000 in repairs, they said.
Witnesses for the Restoration Society argued that restoration could be accomplished for closer to $515,215 and that building a new church in a historic district would cost at least $704,500.
"We're offering them a much cheaper alternative than demolition," Nelson said.
Some Capitol Hill leaders said they want the church to remain in the neighborhood but added that they also are concerned about the Sunday traffic generated by the church, since so many of its members now live in the suburbs and drive to Mount Jezreel to worship.
"It would be different if these people lived in the neighborhood." said Nelson. "If that were the case, they might treat issues like this one with a little more sensitivity."
Julie Servaites, an ANC commissioner who also opposed the demolition, complained, "Nobody in the neighborhood really goes there. Every Sunday morning you just see all those Maryland cars."
About 20 church members, calling themselves "Christians Without a Home" because they were put out of the church, asked the restoration society to help fight the demolition.
Emma Anderson, 67, formerly a lifetime member of Mount Jezreel but now a member of the ousted group, argued that the church does not need a new building because Trammell is "lucky if he has two or three hundred members."
Anderson said she and her sister and 15 other longtime members had their membership withdrawn by church officials in l978 after they argued with Trammell over the operation of the church's day-care center. Three others joined the group for the same reason after they testified against the demolition.
"We withdraw the hand of fellowship from them," said Trammell, explaining that it was "a public offense" to give public testimony opposing church policy.