The convent at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown is 192 years old and is in need of repairs.
Church officials say they only just are beginning to talk about what to do with the building, but Georgetown preservationists are concerned that any plans to renovate the Trinity convent could change or destory the historic character of the building, which is one of the oldest structures in Georgetown.
From San Francisco to New York to Washington, church groups and preservationists are beginning to stumble into confrontations as land-rich, cash-poor churches in developing downtown areas seek to take advantage of real estate values to upgrade or develop their property.
For St. Bartholomew's Church at Park Avenue and 50th Street in New York City, the confrontation between the church and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission has been costly and, so far, fruitless.
St. Bart's -- once the home of wealthy New Yorkers but now a congregation made up mostly of elderly widows and young adults trying to make it big on Broadway while living on peanut butter -- was designated a historic landmark over the protests of the church leadership several years ago by preservationists interested in seeing the 19th century Byzantine-style church, garden and community hall protected from developers.
In an effort to unlock some of the value tied up in its property, the church submitted a proposal to the landmarks commission last January to tear down the community hall and replace it with a 60-foot office building from which the church would lease six floors for community space.
The landmarks commission turned down the application in June, however, saying the design was "not appropriate for a landmark site." The commission said that the new building failed to relate to the church in terms of texture, material, style and scale, as well as overhanging it; and that the office building would "visually suppress" the historic building.
The Rev. Thomas D. Bowers, rector of St. Bart's, claims that the church will die without such a redevelopment project, and he is fighting hard for the right of the church and all churches in New York state to be able to control their own futures.
"There is a great deal of feeling among religious leaders that there has been a great deal of misuse and abuse of the religious community by the preservation community," Bowers said. "We are trying to save St. Bart's, the historically significant building. People think that, because of our beautiful facade on Park Avenue, we are a rich church, but we are not. We are poor in every way. We can't save the church without money."
Bowers said that, because of fire damage and disrepair, it would cost $8 million to bring the church back into full working order, money the church has no hope of raising. Bowers said the church had to fire 18 staff people last year, as well as close during weekdays for the first time since it opened in 1917, because of the cost of hearing and lighting the building. He said that the congregation has not even been able to pay its $146,000 assessment to the Episcopal Diocese this year.
But preservationists argue that all the landmarks commission did was reject the proposed design, not the concept of letting the church develop a portion of its property. Gene A. Norman, chairman of the New York landmarks commissions, said that the commission would welcome alternative proposals.
Alternative proposals are costly, however. Bowers said his church had estimated it would cost nearly $500,000 to come back to the commission with a new design.
"They say we must exhaust our remedies, but they are trying to exhaust us," Bowers said. "I fear that the church, without funds and the space we need, will die as a congregation. And yes, you will still have the church and the community house, but it will be an empty shell."
The case of St. Bart's and several other religious facilities in New York has fueled a movement among the clergy to get organized. The New York Council of Churches, the Catholic Archdiocese of new York and the Board of Rabbis recently banded together to go to Albany to lobby for changes to the New York preservation law.
One proposal supported by many clergy around the state calls for lifting the historic designation of all churches, synagogues and religious buildings. Any future designations could be initiated only by the congregation, rather than from the outside.
In Baltimore, the 100-year-old Lovely Lane Methodist Church, a locally designated historic structure, needs $8 million to replace a leaking roof and archaic heating and cooling system, repairs that the Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Commission is pushing the church to make.
Because the church is a historic structure, the repairs must be done according to plans approved by the landmarks commission, plans that the church says it is having a difficult time funding despite support from the national Methodist Church.
Built in 1883 as a centennial monument to the founding of the Methodist Church in the United States on the same site in 1783, the church is now in such serious disrepair that church leaders fear they may lose the structure. A mural on the dome faded in the past five years from water incursion through the tile roof, and church members say they are worried about other irreversible damage.
Many local preservation laws, including the law in Washington, require that historic buildings not be destroyed through neglect, a requirement that churches say they may have a difficult time meeting if they cannot afford necessary repairs.
"We struggle with this project by inches," said Dr. Emora T. Brannan, pastor of Lovely Lane. "We have raised $500,000 here, and the national church has raised another $700,000, but that is a long way from $8 million."
Brannan said the church was offered a $50,000 grant from the Maryland Historical Trust, but rejected it because the church would have had to turn over to the trust a permanent historic easement on the church.
"If we had done that, we could have been sued if we failed to do certain things to keep up the church," Brannan said. "We have no problem with the state preservationists now, but there is a line in the Bible that says, "A Pharaoh arose who knew not Joseph." We were concerned that in the future there might be a government that wouldn't be so easy to work with, and we didn't want to cede control of church property to the state."
Many churches in redeveloping downtown areas often find that they do not meet current fire codes, lack sprinkler systems and may require considerable renovation just to continue serving the congregation.
In San Francisco, the First Congregational Church, a two-story structure in a high-rise area, is struggling with preservationists over the right to tear down or build on top of their church. The interior of the 1913 building is in poor condition and no longer is meeting the needs of its changing congregation.
Church officials say that they would like to keep the church at its inner-city location because of the programs it conducts for street people and the inner-city poor, but that it needs to cash in on some of the tremendous equity in the site to be able to continue ministering to the community.
In Washington, there are a number of downtown churches -- particularly black churches -- in historic districts whose congregations have moved away.
Two black churches on Capitol Hill recently lost fights with the Capitol Hill Restoration Society over selling their property or destroying their churches, and other churches around the city may face similar stand-offs with preservationists in the future.
Charles Atherton, secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts, which oversees plans that would change the exterior of buildings in the Georgetown Historic District, said that there are at least seven black churches in the eastern end of Georgetown whose congregations no longer live in the community but who return on Sundays to worship.
"We try to be open-minded when we look at proposed changes," Atherton said. "We would certainly hope that any proposed changes for either the convent at Trinity or [other churches] in Georgetown would retain as much of the original historic fabric of the church as possible."
In Denver, where preservationists are a relatively weak lobby, Holy Ghost Catholic Church, a Renaissance-style 1943 building downtown that is not a historic building but is considered an important city landmark, won a $1.6 million renovation as part of an agreement with a British developer that built a 43-story office building on land behind the church. The church sold its property, including the church, to the developer and signed an agreement to lease the church for $1 a year for 500 years, with an option to renew the lease for another 500 years.
"As far as we know, this was the first sale-leaseback of this type involving a church," said C. W. Fentress, architect for the renovation and new office building. "Our problem out here is not churches trying to tear down buildings but, instead, trying to find ways to improve their surroundings."
Fentress said that preservationists did not fight the office building development behind Holy Ghost. "Everyone recognized the development as a catalyst for improvement in the area," Fentress said. "Almost anything is better than parking lots and vacant sites.
In cities such as New York, with stronger preservation lobbies and more historic buildings, however, feeling between the two groups are running deep.
"Churches have a tradition of preservation; indeed, the Catholic Church has been the greatest preservation society in the world," Bowers said. "But there comes a time when the primary mission, to shelter the homeless, love, teach and heal, becomes more important than preservation."