One Ugly Church Bites the Dust

By Nicholas G. Hahn III

Christian Scientists have won their long, twilight struggle against brutalism -- so says a wrecking ball at the corner of 16th and I streets in Washington, D.C.

For what seemed like an eternity, members of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist fought with architecture historians and city bureaucrats over the right to tear down their own church. Churchgoers never liked their 1971 classic brutalist structure -- an architectural style that is well, brutal -- and have even suggested it has something to do with their dwindling numbers.

"We think it says, 'Stay away.' Something goes on in here that they don't want to get outside, which is exactly wrong for all Christianity," a longtime church member, Darrow Kirkpatrick, told NPR. "Brutalism is not our religious expression," he said.

"The Ugliest Churches in the World" offers a hearty "Amen!" While my compilation of ugly churches doesn't rank ugly, the Third Church of Christ, Scientist might just be the ugliest of them all. Take a look at "Even More Ugly Churches," too, and judge for yourself.

When the case went before the District's Historic Preservation Review Board in 2007, the battle became less about bricks and mortar and more about religious freedom. "Church property is often, as is the case here, an expression of a church's theology and religious mission," Roger Severino, a lawyer at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told the Washington Post's Marc Fisher. What's more, the building was in bad shape and needed costly repairs; money the congregation didn't have --and didn't want -- to pony up.

But the Board wasn't convinced and voted unanimously to designate the building an official landmark. This meant that the District now dictated where Christian Scientists worshipped and how they spent their money. Churches, the Post's Fisher wrote, are supposed to be protected from this kind of "extreme preservation mania."

It turns out, the Capital's planning director Harriet Tregoning isn't a preservation maniac. In 2009, Tregoning overturned the Board's decision, calling the building's design an "experiment" that "failed badly." Tregoning agreed with the Christian Scientists that they shouldn't go bankrupt repairing a church they want to wreck anyway. Even though Tregoning refused to engage in the religious freedom concerns, this Christian Scientist victory might give hope to Catholics presently fighting the Obama administration over the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate.

Earlier this month, the District finally issued a permit to raze the brutally ugly church and put up an office buildng (with worship space) in its place. Here's to hoping the rest of "The Ugliest Churches in the World" are next.

Nicholas G. Hahn III is the editor of RealClearReligion. Follow him on Twitter @NGHahn3.

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