After hearing from architectural historians and church representatives, the board members affirmed their belief that the church met the criteria for landmarking, while also qualifying their votes with varying expressions of personal distaste for the architecture.
Denise Johnson said she was “not necessarily a fan of modern architecture,” while John Vlach feels the style’s “virtues are debatable,” and Kathy Henderson is “not a fan of modernism.” Anne Lewis explained how the building attempted to “address the urban planning goals of the time” like “lively pedestrian streets, pocket parks, mixed used zoning,” but “whether [architect Araldo] Cossutta did or did not succeed in larger urban design principles is not relevant.”
The historic preservation law simply requires that a building meet one of many criteria—in this case, “embody the distinguishing characteristics of architectural styles, building types, or methods of construction.” This is extraordinarily broad, as some pointed out at the hearing, and many of the arguments had a circular nature to them: we built this bad building, but now it’s part of our history, so we need to keep this bad building. Whether it does or does not meet the criteria, I believe it ought not to be preserved for reasons I’ve explained before.
While still voting to landmark the building, several of the HPRB members echoed aspects of my urban design concerns. Andrew Aurbach expressed his view that “historic preservation is about placemaking,” and added, “This is not a place that makes, to me.” Johnson compared this building to a Frank Lloyd Wright house which is striking in its austerity, but that creates an environment in which most people would be unable to actually live. She said, “You can say about some preservationists that they only care about the buildings and don’t care about the people,” and stressed that in future steps in this process, it is important to do the latter.
Still other commissioners gave truth to Johnson’s warning. I was most disappointed by Kathy Henderson, who referenced one of the building’s major failings, that light from a skylight often blinds the organist. She said, “What a perfect opportunity to wax poetically about the beauty of the Lord and the enormity of truth.” The meeting contained plenty of poetic waxing, and just a bit too little consideration of people—
not just the church congregation and its needs, but the people of DC.
Unlike the architectural historians who wrote in to the board urging landmarking, those people don’t just sample DC through the AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C. or whizzing down 16th Street in a car, to be “surprised” by the “striking” form as praised by Commissioner Gail Lowe. They need a streetscape that engages, not just surprises, them, that makes places. The church does not, and the more buildings like that become landmarked, the less the city does as a whole. In a downtown already quite barren of humanity, that’s a big loss.