The D.C. Historic Preservation Board last week asked architects to revise plans for condominiums surrounding the former Friendship Baptist Church site in Southwest.
The board told architect Shalom Baranes that his current proposal crowded the 117-year-old church structure, which was declared a historic building in May. The proposal detracts from the prominence the church has had on First Street for more than a century, the board said.
Baranes displayed a 1903 street plan that he said showed the church was designed to be surrounded by other structures such as townhouses. Records indicate that such structures did exist before most buildings in Southwest were razed for redevelopment in the 1950s.
Baranes said the church was not conceived as a freestanding building but rather as a corner building. His proposal for condominiums surrounding the church at 734 First St. SW is true to that original character, he said.
No apartments would be placed inside the sanctuary. That space would be used by a nonprofit organization.
The sanctuary building at H Street and Delaware Avenue SW has been vacant for two years since its last church owners moved out and sold the property to a developer, Steve Tanner. The church, most likely built by former slaves, is one of the few remaining original structures in Southwest, which was bulldozed for urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s.
Tanner has proposed building 60 condominiums on the site, saving the original church but not the two wings added in the last century. Tanner said that his plans are still preliminary and that he's found significant support in the community for razing the vacant church, which lately has housed a half-dozen people who broke through the chain-link fence surrounding the property and took up residence in a church annex.
Members of Friendship Baptist Church said they had not known the church they sold the building to had sold it again until Tanner proposed razing the structure. After hearing neighborhood objections, he applied for landmark status in March. In a 4-3 vote, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6D decided earlier this month to support the project.
Tanner asked the board to declare the original church structure, and not its additions, historic. The project would form an L shape around the church and would be seven stories tall at its highest point, according to the proposal. But opponents say removing any part of the church building would be removing a part of history.
The building has declined in nearly three years of disuse and has been the site of muggings and other crimes, said neighbors.
Several board members expressed concerns about the architect's plans, especially plans for a garage ramp close to the building's front entrance.
"This design doesn't respect the church," said board member Kathy Henderson. "It looks like the church is crowded into a slot."
Member and historian Gail Lowe said the current proposal needed to be modified so that the church's north side could also be viewed.
Tersh Boasberg, the board's chairman, told the room of supporters and opponents that the board had a tough job ahead.
"No one cares about history in Washington more than we do," he said. "We don't all live in a perfect world, so we will do the best we can."
The board, he said, is aware of its duty to preserve historic landmarks in a way that also adapts them to modern use. "These landmarks don't do any good if they keep deteriorating," he said.
D.C. Council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) agreed and said this project would help keep Friendship Baptist from disappearing from the Southwest landscape.
Residents of the Capitol Park IV Condominium Townhouse community and representatives of the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly also testified in support of the project.
Several members of Friendship Baptist, which relocated to a different site, testified in favor of keeping not only the original building, but also the additions built in 1930 and 1952. The board deferred a decision on whether the owner should be allowed to remove the additions before the board's next meeting in September.
Jacquelyne Brown, whose family has been a member of the church for several generations, said she is not opposed to redeveloping the neighborhood. Brown said, however, she didn't want to see that redevelopment come at the cost of losing a building that has been a cornerstone of the community.
"We've lost so much in this neighborhood as it is," Brown said.