The Politics of Preservation

More than forty years ago, the destruction of Manhattan’s beaux-arts Pennsylvania Station, built by the legendary architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, inspired shock and outrage not just among New Yorkers, but around the world. The upkeep of the ornate building was deemed by its owners to be too expensive and a new, more utilitarian structure replaced it. Anyone who has traveled through the current incarnation of Penn Station feels a sense of gloom and misery, rather than excitement and glamor, at the prospect of train travel.

Fortunately, as a result of this colossal error in judgment, a movement began for other beautiful stations such as New York’s Grand Central Terminal, Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, and our own Union Station here in D.C. to be preserved. Ironically enough, for its upcoming expansion Penn Station will be using (and preserving) the magnificent Farley Post Office across the street, also designed in beaux-arts style by McKim, Mead & White. Americans have learned the value of preserving their history, whenever possible.

Historic preservation however, has increasingly become a problem of common sense and aesthetics versus an almost dogmatic approach to architecture. A glaring example of this is the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, here in Washington, designed by an associate of I.M. Pei and built in 1971. It is, frankly, an absolutely hideous building, in the worst possible concrete brutalist style, from an era which saw such architectural disasters as Boston’s City Hall (completed 1968), or the Lauinger Library (completed 1970) which ruined Georgetown’s skyline and entrance quad and about whose destruction I used to daydream while in class.

The church itself no longer wants the building, and has been seeking to raze it and build a new structure. Unfortunately, the building was landmarked as historic in December 2007 and a raze permit denied by the city’s historic preservation board. This matter has been making its way through the courts ever since.

Now things seem to be heading, at last, in favor of the congregation. Federal judge James Robertson has promised that much as he thinks the matter should resolve without further court proceedings, if the District wants him to do, he is prepared to write a 100-page opinion on the matter. And given his comments in court last week, I think we might have an idea of how he would rule:

“Have you seen the church?” Robertson asked.

“Yes, your honor,” the District’s lawyer said.

“Been down there?”

“Yes, your honor.”

“Gone inside?”

“No, your honor.”

“Couldn’t find the door, could you?” the judge quipped.

For its battle the church enlisted the help of the Becket Fund, an interfaith, nonpartisan group that seeks to help religious groups in courts of law and public opinion to assert their Constitutional rights under the First Amendment. Its efforts on behalf of the congregation are clearly bearing fruit, and at the same time allowing the public to consider an important question: where does the right to religious liberty end, and the goal of architectural preservation begin? Is there a cut-off date? Can we tear down a building we do not like – and who decides?

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