If a building is ugly, doesn’t serve its intended purpose, and the people who own it want to tear it down… but it was built by the firm of a famous architect and is a prime example of its architectural style, should it be a landmark?
That’s the debate before the DC Historic Preservation Review Board about the Third Church of Christ, Scientist (aka Christian Science) at 16th and I. In short, the firm of I.M. Pei built the structure in 1971, and the congregation never really liked it. It has no windows except a few dim skylights, is hard to heat, and it costs $8,000 to screw in a light bulb (because scaffolding must be erected). The only entrance comes from a plaza around the side of the building, and the sides facing 16th and I streets are both empty and imposing, rather than creating the sort of community engagement central to the mission of most religious groups including this one.
The church wants to tear down the building, and has an agreement with a developer who owns adjacent properties. However, was built by the firm of I.M. Pei, and but some historic preservationists are advocating landmark status for the building. A landmark application derailed another attempt at redeveloping the building ten years ago, and now both sides are pushing for a resolution.
Should buildings like these be saved? In this article DC historic preservation officer Bruce Yarnall argues that “‘Architectural patterns go in and out of style, just as in some sense fashion does.’ There’s value in maintaining some buildings that are no longer en vogue, he said.” And “Victorian architecture was once called ugly, too,” argues the Washington Times. In fact, even the Old Executive Office Building was seen as “out of fashion and derided for its lavish ornamentation” when built, but is now seen as one of Washington’s most beautiful buildings.
But what preservationists are missing is that architecture is more than simply an art form. Each building does present an image and make a statement, but it also interacts with people and with the neighborhood, and forms a piece of an urban fabric to which it can either contribute or detract. This building does not damages the ability of the area to become a vibrant, active region. Its blank, forbidding walls are off-putting not only to people who come to see it as art, as some modern art may do to museum-goers, but makes the corner cold and uncomfortable, and prevents the existence of public space or a sidewalk cafe.
Should a percentage of drivers be forced to drive original Ford Model Ts because of their historic import? That car belongs in a museum, and perhaps so does the building, but both quite simply do not serve their needed function. It’s not just that the building is ugly. As the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher wrote, “What the preservationists don’t get is that the Christian Science complex is a failure, a design flaw that begs to be blown to bits.” We should preserve important architecture, but only when it also functions as a useful building and a part of a city.
At the recent ANC meeting, the committee spent over an hour on this topic with some strong emotions, mostly on the side opposing the landmark designation. While many people including church representatives and one ANC commissioner gave eloquent arguments against it, nobody from the preservation office or the Committee of 100 was willing to actually speak to the merits of landmarking the building, instead simply arguing that the process should be allowed to run its course. However, the HPRB is required to give weight to the position of the ANC, and Dupont’s ANC voted unanimously to oppose the landmark application.
Tomorrow, HPRB will consider the matter in a special meeting. If the church is unsuccessful, they have several additional options available, including appealing directly to the Mayor, and RLUIPA. But hopefully reason—and the need for a usable building that engages the streetscape—will prevail.