Community Center To Rise Near D.C. Civil War Battlefield

Fort
View of Emory United Methodist Church from Fort Stevens in Washington, D.C.

Credit: Civil War Preservation Trust

It was July 12, 1864, and Confederate troops were advancing on Washington, D.C. "Get down, you fool!" Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. reportedly yelled as bullets whizzed by. President Lincoln watched from D.C.'s Fort Stevens, and Lt. Gen. Jubal Early's soldiers were taking aim.

Lincoln remained safe (for the time being), but the battle at Fort Stevens was the closest the Confederate Army ever came to conquering the city. It was also one of only two times a U.S. President came under enemy fire (the other was James Madison in the War of 1812). The Union victory came with a price: 374 Union losses and 500 Confederate casualties.

More than a century later, development encroaches on Fort Stevens battlefield, one of nine capital-area fortifications the National Park Service administers today.

On Feb. 23, 2010, the city's planning office approved a proposal submitted by the Emory United Methodist Church to erect an expansive community center adjacent to the battleground.

Fort Stevens has been included on the Civil War Preservation Trust's Endangered Battlefield list in 2002, 2003, 2004 and now, in 2010, the Washington, D.C.-based group announced last month.

"We are in favor of communities growing and prospering as long as they do it in a mutually beneficial manner," says Mary Koik, spokeswoman for the Civil War Preservation Trust. "We'd love to see the church do something a little less grand in scale."

The 178-year-old church has a long and favorable reputation in the surrounding community. But if it builds the $30 million center as proposed, it would undoubtedly block the line of sight from the fort, Koik says, not to mention "significantly degrade the experience of visitors [to Fort Stevens]."

The five-story Beacon of Light Community Center would provide temporary shelter for the homeless, affordable rental housing for families and senior citizens, a 500-seat theater, a senior citizens' medical wing, and office and retail space. Emory United Methodist Church leaders could not be reached for comment, but the church's website states that the new community center will aim to "change the quality of living along Georgia Avenue."

Hoping to change the minds of church officials, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Civil War Preservation Trust, and other groups have attempted launched letter-writing campaigns and have spoken out at meetings about the development.

"Fort Stevens and the Civil War Defenses of Washington also merit careful stewardship for their close historic connections to the many thousands of African Americans who freed themselves from slavery and sought protection behind Union lines," wrote Rob Nieweg, director of the Southern Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in a letter dated Jan. 6, 2010 to the chairman of the city's board of zoning adjustments.

"There's still time to reach a compromise," Koik says. "Until ground is broken, we are going to hope for a compromise solution with the church." Still, "because the decision has been made by the city, there is very little we can do about it," she says. "But I do hope that the church will realize that people do care about D.C.'s Civil War history and want to preserve it."

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Comments

Submitted by Beatrix Gorsky at: March 30, 2011
There are some people who don't care about preserving D.C.'s Civil War history. They don't care about history at all. But the five-story Beacon of Light Community Center would provide temporary shelter for the homeless, affordable rental housing for families and senior citizens, a 500-seat theater, a senior citizens' medical wing so this is somewhat different because it's aim is to help the people. But the question is, why near D.C.'s Civil War history.

Submitted by anonymous at: June 3, 2010
i hope that something can be done. can't the NPS do anything?