The ruins of a Northwest Episcopal church that have served as an eye-catching backdrop to a small community park near Dupont Circle will be partially torn down.
Visitors to the park and the ruins seldom realize that the St. Thomas' Parish congregation remains, meeting in the parish hall behind the ruins. The church rector wants to change that visibility problem.
To give St. Thomas' more visibility, the city has approved church plans to tear down the ruins, enclose about a quarter of the park and build a new church entrance of glass blocks, gray tile and limestone. The work is scheduled to begin in about six months.
Some neighborhood groups are critical of the plans, which they say will destroy a landmark and one of the neighborhood's few quiet oases.
"We need to let people know we are here," said Henry Bruel, rector of the church at 18th and Church streets NW. "It will look like we are alive and not dead, not just a ruin."
But David Sellin, an art and architectural historian and member of the Residential Action Coalition, said, "The proposed enclosure is a violation of everything the original church represented in style and proportion. The glass block and tile wall is totally inappropriate. It will look more like the Ralston checkerboard Puppy Chow box than a place of worship."
When a fire destroyed the church's Gothic, gray stone sanctuary 15 years ago, congregation members and neighborhood residents joined to build the park where the 80-year-old church had stood.
The back wall of the sanctuary, with its intricately detailed sandstone carving -- the only part of the church that remains -- stands as a stark backdrop to the gracefully landscaped park with its host of linden trees, seasonal flowers and comfortable benches. The little park has become a favorite reading, resting and picnic spot for area residents.
Plans for the park call for removal of the romantic ruins and creation of a new doorway to the church annex where the 200-member congregation has been meeting since the fire.
Bruel said that some of the church's neighbors had told him they particularly missed the glass doors of the old church that allowed passers-by to look into the sanctuary.
"So we are putting in a lot of glass so that, once again, people can look into the church," he said. "We chose something very different than the original architecture because we are a congregation which is looking forward, not back."
The design of the new facade and the plan to dismantle the old wall have drawn strong opposition from some Dupont Circle organizations, including the Dupont Circle Conservancy, the Bay State Tenant Association and the Residential Action Coalition.
The plans were recently approved by the city's Historic Preservation Review Board, which must approve all facade changes in historic districts. The church is within the Dupont Circle Historic District.
"We are not opposed to any building at all on the site," Sellin said. "We realize that this is a private park and a private expression of the church. But there are so many other solutions than the one proposed."
The architect for the project, Darrel Rippeteau, who recently won certificates of excellence in preservation and architecture from the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, defended his design, saying, "We consider this our best work and our best project. We were most responsive to the owner's physical and spiritual requirements."
Rippeteau said he submitted more than 100 schemes until the church committee and Bruel agreed on one. "This is not a cookie-cutter design, not a comfortable design for everyone," he said.
The new entrance extends 30 feet into the 120-foot park, Rippeteau said.
He said the ledge along the back wall, which some refer to as the altar, is actually the reredos, or the wall behind the altar. The reredos would be demolished but the two decorative pieces of stonework on each side would be removed and reconstructed.
But Jim McGrath, president of the Bay State Tenant Association, said, "The altar is a strong counterpoint to the garden. Our feeling is that if you destroy the altar and old wall, you destroy the reason for the park, which is a memorial to the church which burned."
Then he added, "Many of us in the neighborhood are in hock to that church. Bruel is very generous in allowing us to meet there. He has done so much for the neighborhood that I had reservations about opposing the plan."
Vernon Palmer, staff coordinator for the Dupont Circle ANC, agreed. "Father Bruel allows just about everybody to meet there from the elderly and the handicapped to the gays and the civic minded."
The ANC took no position on the plans because it did not have time to meet and vote before the public hearing, Palmer said. "We thought the plans we were shown were pretty terrible," he said. "But we never got a chance to make a recommendation because of our schedule."
Responded Bruel, "They want us to preserve a past that isn't there. We can't be told by the community how we will worship. We are a part of the community but a separate entity."
He said the congregation has declined from 600 before the fire to about 200 today, and that its survival is dependent on the new entrance.
"We need a higher profile," Bruel said. "We need to make a statement to the community. We are open and we are in business."
He said the destruction of the old church turned out to be a blessing because the building had become "an albatross."
"It was costing us more to keep the building repaired than we had to spend," Bruel said. "We wouldn't be here now if the old church had survived. The insurance from the fire gave us an endowment that allowed us to keep on going."