The Brutal Truth

Unloved and (gasp) unattractive buildings deserve protection, too


Third Church of Christ, Scientist in Washington, D.C.

Credit: Krista Walton

Even the best architects have an off-day now and then. I'm assuming that's what happened with Washington's Third Church of Christ, Scientist.

The church is the work of the I. M. Pei firm, which is responsible for some genuine architectural icons, including the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, the John Hancock Tower in Boston, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and the glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre.

Third Church doesn't look like those sleek and shiny structures. Squatting sulkily on a corner of 16th Street, just a couple of blocks from the White House, Third Church is a near windowless bunker whose octagonal shape makes it look like a gargantuan concrete lugnut. The only hint that it's a church is a slab of concrete that sticks out of the facade like a giant pull-tab, and supports a peal of bells. Looking at this building, you think to yourself, If I brushed against that bad boy, it would hurt.

You've gathered by now that I don't much like it. And I'm not the only one: Members of the church's congregation are so fed up with the building, they'd like to knock it down—which is why they've filed a lawsuit challenging the local Historic Preservation Review Board's designation of the structure as a landmark.

This is not a new issue. The question of whether landmark designation infringes on the hallowed doctrine of church-state separation has been debated many times over the years. Veteran preservationists (note my deft avoidance of the accurate term "old-timers") will recall a similar flap in the 1980s involving St. Bartholomew's Church in New York City. But what makes this case different is the fact that St. Bart's is an unquestioned masterpiece, while Third Church ... umm, isn't. A writer in The American Spectator called it "one of the country's least-welcoming houses of worship" and a "concrete monument to impracticality." With that kind of PR, you can see why some people wonder whether this building is worth preserving.

Let's review a few pertinent questions for which, I should warn you at the outset, I don't have any hard-and-fast answers.

Is Third Church a landmark? Yes. It's been officially designated by the official body that is officially charged with doing that sort of thing. So—officially, at least —that's that. Does it deserve the designation, and the protective shield that goes with it? Well, if "landmark" were a synonym for "pretty," no—but this isn't a beauty contest. The local preservation board says the building is "in a league of its own" as an example of Brutalism, and if preservation is all about saving a record of our cultural history, we can't ignore — or worse, erase — a chapter of that record just because we don't like the way a structure looks.

So where does that leave the disgruntled congregation? It could sell the property and use the money to build a new church elsewhere. But who would buy this much-vilified building, and what would the new owner do with it?

Years ago, when old rowhouses and storefronts were being demolished to make way for new buildings like Third Church, we railed against the rampant uglification of our streets. Well, tempus has fugited, and now the structures we hated have become the ones we fight for. That's the thing about historic preservation. It isn't always pretty, and sometimes it isn't even much fun. But it's almost always interesting.

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