In its 101st year, Mount Jezreel Baptist Church on Capitol Hill stands empty. Dandelions push through the cracks of its front porch, a window is broken and the lawn is shaggy.
Mount Jezreel officials had wanted to tear down the old church and replace it with a modern one. But last year, the Capitol Hill Restoration Society successfully fought those plans and won.
In April the congregation moved to a larger church on Riggs Road in upper Northeast, leaving behind its aging building.
The fate of Mount Jezreel is the latest development in a series of battles that have pitted predominately black churches on Capitol Hill against the predominately white restoration society and have sparked claims that the historic preservation efforts are racially motivated.
The confrontations have occurred as more middle-class whites and blacks have moved to the Capitol Hill area in the past 15 years, replacing lower-income black families.
The restoration society still keeps a close eye on Mount Jezreel to ensure there is no "demolition by neglect," which would be a violation of the city's preservation law.
Two weeks ago, the society called the police to make sure church members returned Mount Jezreel's 101-year-old cornerstone.
The Rev. Harold Trammell, Mount Jezreel's minister, said he removed the cornerstone to see if church founders had placed any records there.
The New Samaritan Baptist Church, located a few blocks away, had a similar fight with the restoration society and lost. The church plans to leave its longtime home at Sixth Street and Maryland Avenue NE at the end of the month.
New Samaritan officials had planned to tear down the two Victorian-style buildings adjacent to the church and expand its facilities.
But in 1979, opposition by the restoration society scuttled those plans. Last month, New Samaritan sold the apartment buildings to a group of developers for $250,000.
The developers say they plan to convert the buildings to 12 one-bedroom condominiums. The church has built a new sanctuary costing $1.5 million at 1100 Florida Ave. NE. "I have strong feelings about the battle," Trammell said. "It just seems to be an underhanded way to move blacks off of Capitol Hill, all under the guise of the historical society."
New Samaritan's pastor, the Rev. Robert Harrison, agreed. "We can't shut our eyes to the racial aspect of it. Of course, I'm not bitter. I've tried to keep relations with the community. Yet, I think it might have been handled differently if people had a feeling of what we are all about, giving service to the community and helping people religiously."
Richard Wolfe, a member of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, disagreed that historical preservation is a code word for discrimination.
"You can't take vast generalities" about the changing patterns on Capitol Hill, Wolfe said.
Like whites before them, many blacks have voluntarily moved from Capitol Hill to the suburbs, Wolfe said. In part because of the restoration society's efforts, Capitol Hill has "maintained a continuity of community which is unusual," he said.
Mount Jezreel argued to the city's then-Joint Committee on Landmarks that its building at 500 C St. SE was was too small to accommodate its growing congregation of 700 and that water damage and termite infestation made the building unsafe.
But the restoration society successfully argued that the church was an important landmark for the black community because the Romanesque building had been designed by a black architect and built by freed slaves.
In a related development, 25 Mount Jezreel members who opposed demolition of the old church are suing the church board of trustees to gain title to the C Street property.
Judith Walter, attorney for the dissidents and the chairwoman of the legal committee of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, asserted that Trammell violated Mount Jezreel's charter when he moved the church.
According to the charter, the church was founded expressly for the purpose of worship at Fifth and E streets SE, Walter said. "When they moved it, it ceased being Mount Jezreel Baptist Church."
Walter has sought a temporary restraining order forbidding Trammell from selling the church.
"We want the church back and to carry on the works it was put there for," said Emma Anderson, at 68, a lifelong member of Mount Jezreel and a member of the dissident group that calls itself Mount Jezreel Christians Without a Home.
The group is largely composed of church members who lost their membership in 1978 after they differed with Trammell over the operation of the church's day care center and publicly opposed some of his policies.
Trammell said he is undecided whether to keep the church building, which has an assessed value of $449,000, or to sell it.
The church is now used for storage.