At night, the old Faith Baptist Church sits seemingly deserted at South Carolina and Ninth streets SE, like a towering monument left behind by a lost civilization, prompting questions of its history and fate.
During the day, those questions are faded by the noise of construction workers who moved into the Capitol Hill landmark, beating nails, cutting brick and pulling out the church's insides, leaving it gutted and naked. In about a year, the 96-year-old church will become a modern complex of condominiums.
The building's new owner, Robert Herrema, president of Grace Inc., plans to turn the church into 24 condominiums, while maintaining the facade and some of the stained-glass windows. The one- and two-bedroom units will cost from $60,000 to more than $100,000, said Herrema, 48, a D.C. developer who recently worked on projects converting two Capitol Hill schoolhouses into condos.
Herrema's plan for the church met with neighborhood opposition regarding parking, but those problems were resolved after the developer proved there was enough street parking. The project will include nine parking spaces.
The church is in a prime real estate spot -- about a block from the Eastern Market Metro station in a rapidly changing neighborhood. Many older families have moved out and younger families are moving in. Most of the row houses near the church have been renovated and sell for as much as $300,000.
For almost four years, the church sat forsaken. At night, it cast mysterious shadows on the sidewalks, rusted air-conditioners hung from boarded windows and an old boiler sat in a pit in the church's front yard.
Neighbors often wondered why such a beautiful church would be left to weather the storm alone.
What happened to the worshipers who must have diligently come to services every Sunday, assuredly paying tithes and offerings to maintain the 20,000-square-foot building with 25-foot vaulted ceilings? What happened to the choir that must have sung in the raised balcony to the tunes of the piped organ? Who were the children who sat in the benches reciting their Sunday school lessons?
The church's cornerstone was laid in 1891 by Grace Baptist Church, a congregation that remained in the building for almost 90 years. Grace was a conservative, middle-class white Baptist congregation with about 1,200 members during the 1950s, explained Erwin Nase, 58, a former deacon. The congregation had pride in its building, its teaching and missionary work in the neighborhood where few of its white members lived.
It was "flourishing and sound," said Ethel Shepherd, who joined the church in 1956 and became its clerk. "They were just a lot of happy people there. It was a wonderful place to make friends."
"We had a good church and excellent fellowship -- not super wealthy, but we could pay our bills," Nase said.
After the 1968 riots, which destroyed several neighborhoods in the city, the congregation began to swiftly dwindle. "It wasn't safe to go to church," Nase said. "One man was robbed at gunpoint. It even happened on Sunday mornings."
The congregation began to lose members at a rate of 40 to 50 a month, Nase said. "We had a colored evangelist come to the church. He wasn't racist. He just told us the mood of the day around here, there's nothing you can do. They won't listen to whites. So we took his advice."
In 1970, Grace Baptist sold the building for $150,000 to Faith Baptist, a black congregation. Grace then moved to Camp Springs -- where it still meets -- following the pattern of white flight taken by many city businesses, residents and churches.
Faith, a congregation that had split from another Baptist church in Southeast Washington, had been meeting in rented quarters at the old Rehoboth Church.
"Then we ran across these people, and they made provisions for us to worship," said the Rev. William Pierce Smith, pastor of Faith, which now meets at the Washington Home for Aging Services at 18th and Douglas streets NE. "To our surprise, they asked us if we'd like to buy it." It took Faith, which started meeting in the building in 1970, three years to raise the $50,000 down payment.
Unlike Grace, Faith had few vandalism problems, and none of its members encountered violence on the way to worship. "Nothing of that nature happened to us," Smith said. "A few petty things -- windows broken, one lady had her pocketbook snatched, but nothing on a major scale."
But Faith was to have other problems. The building began to fall apart, the roof leaked, fuel oil cost $2,600 a month and paying the huge repair bills was beyond the reach of Faith, whose congregation of about 250 members was too small for the big building. Tithes and offerings were not enough.
Then the boiler exploded and maintenance bills escalated. "We were practical enough to know upkeep was beyond our means, unless we resorted to fund raising, and we didn't want to do that," Smith said. "We decided it was best to sell it."
So Faith put the building on the market, with few offers coming until Grace Inc.'s in 1985. Herrema had formed the company, not affiliated with Grace Baptist Church, for the project and offered $500,000 for the church.
"They obviously wanted to sell," Herrema said. "There were no churches standing in line waiting to buy it."
Smith said, "We'd rather another congregation buy, but after three years we put it off to whoever could buy it."
Shepherd said of the condominiums, "We just have to accept it. I'd rather that than having a nightclub there. The Lord used it for several years. It's a landmark. That it's being preserved in some way is better than being torn down."