The developer who owns the 117-year-old church in Southwest that was the former home of the Friendship Baptist congregation told the Historic Preservation Review Board last week that he plans to build condominiums around the church sanctuary.
The historic preservation board unanimously voted to declare the structure a landmark last Thursday. The owner, Steve Tanner, had asked for landmark status March 17 after some area residents objected to his plans to raze the structure at 734 First St. SW. The church was built by one of the earliest independent African American congregations in Washington.
Tanner had asked the board to declare that the original church, not its 1930 and 1952 additions, be designated historic. But the board unanimously declared the entire structure a landmark and will recommend that it be added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Tanner's attorney, Cynthia Giordano, said he will submit an outline of his construction plans to the board within two months.
The preliminary design calls for condominiums to form an "L" around the church, "preserving the view and respectful of the church so you would get the same view of the church from the front," she said.
The rest of the development would be set back from the church, would have fewer than the originally planned 60 units and would be 70 feet at its tallest point, she said.
The 2,500-square-foot sanctuary may be leased to a nonprofit organization, Giordano said, and the stained glass windows would be preserved in the building.
Landmark status does not necessarily prevent demolition or alteration of the church, but it does require a developer to defend plans before the same review board before construction can begin.
The structure has been boarded up and vacant for two years while weeds took over the yard and squatters took over portions of the building.
It was built in 1886-87 in an Italianate Gothic style, with asymmetrical towers. Its stained glass windows may be original, the review board's staff suggested, and there is some evidence that the 1952 addition, which was not completely built, was designed by the well-known African American architectural firm led by Howard D. Woodson.
The church was also considered a landmark because it is one of only two churches to survive the redevelopment of Southwest in the 1950s, and "represents one of the few remnants of a vanished neighborhood and resistance to one of the most important urban renewal projects in the nation," the board's staff report said.
Thirteen churches in Southwest were demolished during that period, and only Friendship Baptist and St. Dominic's Catholic Church survived. Friendship parishioners credit their longtime pastor, the Rev. Benjamin H. Whiting, who kept them in constant prayer while he negotiated with the city.
The Afro-American newspaper quoted Whiting at the time as noting that the church was across the street from what was then Randall Junior High School and the Southwest Health Center. He described the church as just one corner of a triangle that served Southwest. "One serves the mind, one serves the body and we serve the soul," he said.
The church survived, and in 1965, its members built a new home nearby at H and Delaware streets. The congregation used the old church for a community center for some years, and then sold it. By 1980, the year that Whiting died, the property was owned by Redeemed Temple of Jesus Christ. That church, after trying to sell the property for two years, sold it in 2003 to Tanner.
Tanner's original plan, which was to demolish the church and erect 60 condominiums on the site, got the endorsement of the neighboring Capital Park complex and the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly. The Advisory Neighborhood Commission's hearing on the proposal in October ended with a tie vote, but ANC 6D Chairman Ahmed Assalam said he planned to apply for landmark status for the church.
After waiting several months, Tanner took his plans to the D.C. Zoning Commission, which reviewed the proposal in February and said the site's landmark status should be resolved first.
Friendship Baptist Church has officially stayed out of the controversy over the future of its former home, although some of its members have become active in the preservation effort.
"The battle to keep this place historical goes very deep and very long," said Jacqueline Brown, who said she was a fifth-generation member of the church. "When those other 13 churches found out Friendship had survived, many of those members, who were not Baptists or even Christians, came to Friendship."
"When I think of the old church, I think of it as part of our history as black people. There aren't that many sites identified and recognized by us," said Nancy Pinkney. Her family was forced out of its home when the Southeast Freeway was built.