- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

Damage caused by the construction of several 14-story condominium buildings and underground parking has forced a historic downtown congregation, Second Baptist Church, built in 1884, to worship at Walker Jones Elementary School auditorium for six weeks.

The walls of the church at 816 Third St. NW in the Mount Vernon Square area are cracked, the ceiling is falling down, and the pastor, the Rev. Dr. James E. Terrell, said the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) advised him that the church is not safe for use.

“This has not been a good period for the church,” Mr. Terrell said. “People come to church for peace, to meditate and for comfort. They can’t do that when they don’t know what will happen next.”

“As our congregation was conducting worship services, pieces from the ceiling fell down and [it] was unpredictable and uncomfortable,” Mr. Terrell said. “It was also very dangerous. Someone could have been injured with the large pieces of plaster falling down around us.”

Mr. Terrell said that although DCRA’s office of construction advised against worshipping in the sanctuary, they could use Holloman Hall, a newer addition added in recent years for office space.

“Membership is painful and taxing at this time for members of Second Baptist Church. We can’t have funerals or weddings at the church,” he said. “We have been holding funerals at other churches because funerals occur during the week” at the height of construction hours.

Another casualty of the construction damage is the yearly High Tea, which is usually held at Second Baptist in mid-May. The popular event was postponed.

“It’s a shame the church cannot host our annual High Tea this year. We pray we will be back in our church next year,” said Mr. Terrell’s wife, retired D.C. Superior Court Judge Mary A. Gooden Terrell.

She is the founder of the High Tea Society Inc., an organization for girls ages 12 to 18, who attend D.C. public schools.

“I wanted to provide an atmosphere where the girls can feel as comfortable in the White House as they would in their house,” said Mrs. Terrell, who also teaches Sunday school and holds tutoring sessions on Saturday afternoons.

According to the D.C. Office of Tourism, Second Baptist Church is one of the oldest black congregations in Washington, originally organized in 1848 by former members of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, who later split the congregations.

Zoning has been changed for the rapidly redeveloping downtown area in recent years, and older plans for parking in the area switched to construction of high-rise condominiums.

Because Second Baptist Church had been officially designated as a historic site, contractors were required to take appropriate precautions to secure the structure.

Eighteen months ago, when Quadrangle Development Corp. began construction work, the church was secured as required, but damage starting occurring slowly. It reached a crisis point about six weeks ago.

Quadrangle is responsible for completing the repair work for the church, and the contractors are paying for the church to rent the school for its services, Mr. Terrell said.

A phone call to Mark Brungart, manager of Quadrangle, was not returned.

Mr. Terrell said that “because all of the attorneys were a part of the formation of this agreement, it was a good agreement, and it was helpful to us as a church, because once the damage began, attorneys had to get involved to see that the repairs [will be] made.”

However, “repairs have been slow in coming,” he said.

Mr. Terrell said he is working with contractors, his legal team, the D.C. Historic Preservation Society and the D.C. Office of Planning to jump-start the renovations.

David Maloney, state historic preservation officer of the D.C. Office of Planning, said, “My office here in the Office of Planning reviewed the permit [for the church renovation], and it was issued in January of 2008. The approved permit usually gets the work to the building under way.”

Mr. Maloney added that his office would only review the plans. “Details are between lawyers and contractors, though the Office of Planning is anxious to see that the building is corrected as quickly as possible, so the congregation can get back into their building.”

However, Mr. Maloney said, “City construction inspectors will see that the work is done properly.”

The contractors have estimated that the work would only take three weeks, said architect Edward M. Johnson, of Edward M. Johnson & Associates PC, who represents the church in negotiations for the renovation.

As of this week, the church repairs have yet to begin, and talks have gone back and forth between the church’s attorney, Mr. Johnson and the Quadrangle Development Corp, he said.

“All parties have been working together to resolve this matter,” Mr. Johnson said. “The condominiums that are being built on both sides of the church swallow up the church, and Second Baptist has served the community for many, many years. But that is the price of progress, the loss of an historic site.”

Mr. Johnson added that “the new condominiums being built around Second Baptist extend below ground for the underground parking.” So, “some very intense underground drilling caused the major separation of walls and separation of concrete floors. Though steel beams were installed and wooden members were followed by tie-backs, injected with steel rods deep into the soil, to keep the concrete from moving, it didn’t work.”

“Once we all agree, everyone will sign off on plans, [and] then the work can begin,” Mr. Johnson said.

Tourism had flourished in recent years at Second Baptist with buses and tour groups visiting weekly. The church boasts of pews that have been in the church since 1884.

“Nothing has changed. It has been a beautiful historical site, and we hate to see it ruined this way,” said Mr. Terrell.

The church has had 14 pastors. Mr. Terrell, who was appointed in 1997, is considered a scholarly pastor. He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism, master’s degrees in teaching and divinity and a doctorate degree in education, all from Howard University.

“The only thing that saved the church was the historic designation,” Mr. Terrell said. “If we had not had lawyers and money, and no historic designation, we would have been in big trouble, and would have lost our church.”

Lyndia Grant, a religion writer, is project director of the African-American Civil War Memorial and CEO of Lyndia Grant Associates LLC.

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