Sunday, May 17, 2009

A historic downtown church in the District that more closely resembles a concrete bunker than a house of worship can be demolished because the “brutalist” structure’s upkeep is so expensive it would eventually bankrupt the congregation, a city official has ruled.

Members of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, located just a few blocks from the White House, have spent months in federal court fighting for a permit to raze the boxy modernist church they say is unwelcoming and impractical because of its huge concrete faces, sharp angles and few windows. But preservationists say the church, which forsakes a traditional steeple and nave, embodies the 1950s and ‘60s architectural style and should remain intact.

In a decision filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, D.C. planning director Harriet Tregoning said that despite the building’s designation as a historic landmark, church leaders should be allowed to replace it. Church members have welcomed the ruling.

The decision has “basically freed us from the bunker,” said Eric Rassbach, an attorney for the church.

Ms. Tregoning, acting on behalf of D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, cited several problems with the church’s construction, including the use of uninsulated concrete and defective workmanship. The congregation would need to pay for ongoing repairs to keep it functional, she said.

The church is “facing a serious financial deficit associated with the landmarked building that is beyond its means to address,” she wrote. “The expenses are significant at present, and are likely to continue to rise in the future.”

The situation would empty the church’s coffers and likely “cause its demise within eight years or less,” Ms. Tregoning wrote.

Additionally, the complicated design makes adapting the building difficult, she said. Preservationists have suggested converting it into a museum, gallery or restaurant, among other things.

“We’re very, very grateful,” said Darrow Kirkpatrick, chairman of the church’s redevelopment committee. “It’s been a long and difficult road.”

There’s one caveat to the city’s ruling: The church must first obtain a building permit for its new structure at the same site before it receives the demolition permit. Mr. Kirkpatrick said church officials will now work with architects to develop construction plans.

The church was built in 1971 and is based on the design of architect Araldo Cossutta, who worked with the firm of the famed architect I.M. Pei. Mr. Pei’s Washington buildings include the widely admired East Wing of the National Gallery. But the church’s design was mostly the work of Mr. Cossutta, who also designed the Christian Science Mother Church building in Boston.

Church members have said the church has little natural light and a hidden entrance - features contrary to the church’s mission of being open to the community. Still, preservation groups worked to get the church its historic landmark status, which it received in 2007.

The congregation filed a lawsuit last August through the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, an interfaith Washington-based legal group that works on issues of free expression of religion. The congregation contends the landmark designation limits the congregation’s ability to freely practice religion.

Preservation advocates say they will work to overturn the city’s approval for demolition.

Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League, said there are unexplored alternatives that would maintain the historic building. The group will likely appeal the decision, she said.

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