Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
What do you call an outfit that evicts struggling artists and demolishes historic buildings in order to build a high-rent office tower? On F Street, you call it divine.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
Anthony Caffry may have been a priest, but his true calling, history shows, was real estate.
Knocking around Washington in 1794, the Irish-born priest set out to find a spot to build the future nation’s capital’s first Catholic church. Caffry eventually settled on a vacant block along F Street. The street was hardly more than a cow path then, but it was convenient, about halfway between the planned sites of the “President’s House” and the Capitol: Square 376, Lots 5 and 6. The lots sold for 40 pounds each, the equivalent of about $1,000 today. It was such a good deal that the priest came back later for Lot 7; he purchased that one for
What Caffry sought, says historian Morris J. MacGregor, was “a well-situated site at a bargain price.” And that’s precisely what he got: location, location, location. St. Patrick’s Church is up the street from Ford’s Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was shot in the 19th century, and a stone’s throw from the MCI Center, where Michael Jordan’s Wizards may soar in the 21st.
Ever since Caffry planted his flag on F Street, the story of St. Patrick’s has been tied to the fate of downtown Washington. It’s a fate that depends heavily on the vagaries of the local real estate market, which has seen downtown go from muddy village to commercial hub to emblem of urban decay.
Right now, the most conspicuous commercial marquees on the 900 block of F Street are decidedly down-market: Reliable Pawnbrokers, Central Liquor, and the American Fashion wig store. In good weather, it’s all sidewalk clothes racks. Hidden amidst the disheveled streetscape and cut-rate wares, however, is the fact that property values around St. Patrick’s are shooting through the roof—and the skyrocketing assessments have nothing to do with the street’s run-down, funky appeal.
F Street is once again hot. And, thanks to the Rev. Caffry, the church owns the land underneath it all. Today, his investment is being eyed as prime office space.
St. Patrick’s and its parent organization, the Hyattsville-based Archdiocese of Washington, which technically owns the land, have waited decades to develop their graffiti-strewn inheritance on F Street. But something has always gotten in the way. Money. Zoning laws. A new historic district. And now a gaggle of artists, backed by historic preservationists, who don’t want to lose their studios on the block to the church’s proposed 11-floor office building.
And the citizens fear that the church’s latest development dreams would gobble up F Street’s other charms right along with those artists’ studios: the storefronts, the street life, and the historic buildings, too. “A city worth its name needs a living downtown,” says downtown resident and shopper Ilsa Rubio. “Washington has its promise, but it seems a shame to lose all this to a lot of soulless office buildings.”
But an office building, soulless or not, is exactly what F Street is likely to get. The church’s initial application to raze its properties on the block was denied on historic-preservation grounds. But Administrative Law Judge Rohulamin Quander, the preservation official who made the ruling, missed his deadline. And under city law, demolition applications are deemed approved if they wait more than 60 days. Preservationists are suing, but with D.C.’s most powerful land-use law firm in its corner, the church is likely to get its way on a technicality. Which means the wrecking ball may well fly sometime soon.
Art. Church. Power: The agony and the ecstasy of it all. F Street has become Washington’s testiest preservation battleground. As usual, there’s a script: Good vs. Evil, with the church cast in the uncomfortable role as the heavy that wants to topple history and cast out artists. So what’s the city’s first Catholic church doing on the unpopular side of this morality play? The same thing it’s always done: living off the land Caffry bought, as well as the land that was added to it by subsequent pastors decades later. But the church’s bad-guy role may explain its public reticence in this fight. “We’ve been asked to keep a low profile,” says one St. Patrick’s official, insisting on anonymity.
Altogether, the Catholic church is in the unique position of being a nonprofit with 60,000 square feet of contiguous property in the middle of downtown. And if the archdiocese were talking, it might make a strong case for its office building on the basis of its mission to spread the faith and do good works—the calculus behind its decision. The lease revenue, after all, is earmarked for Catholic Charities, not a Swiss bank account. For the Catholic church, which owns as much land as anybody in Washington except the federal government, real estate has always been a means toward an end. And nowhere is that more true than at St. Patrick’s.
Surrounded by stores, office buildings, and museums, the church has no great natural parish base. An important segment of its paltry 350 registered parishioners—which represents an increase over the past decade—consists of businesspeople who got involved through weekday Masses, church officials say. Monsignor Peter Vaghi, a former lawyer and St. Patrick’s current pastor, has been credited with rebuilding the parish in recent years. Church officials say that registered parishioners have grown from 200 “units”—singles and families—in 1989 to its present 350. Sunday Masses swell to as many as 470 thanks to tourists and other downtown visitors.
But as far as potential congregants from the neighborhood go, U.S. census figures show that the number of households within a mile radius of St. Patrick’s declined from 10,404 in 1990 to an estimated 9,292 in 1998. The projections for 2003 show a continuing decline, to 8,587. This trend doesn’t bode well for the church’s collection plate.
Land values, however, are rising dramatically, mainly because of the recent buildup of office and retail development. “Most parishes reflect what’s going on around them,” says the anonymous church official. “St. Patrick’s is unique, because of its history and position in the city.” And its current position in the city’s real estate boom might best be described as ground zero.
From the arrival of the laboring Irish immigrants who made up its earliest parishioners to the 1968 riots, which emptied much of downtown, St. Patrick’s has known its share of tough times. Through it all, the church has always had a little something to fall back on: its income property on the 900 block of F Street.
And, as preservationists are finding out, nostalgia for the past is a luxury St. Patrick’s has rarely been able to afford. Back in the 1870s, when the parish decided to build a new church amid an encroaching downtown, it even cleared out its own graveyard. Among the coffins unearthed was that of William Matthews, an early church patriarch. According to MacGregor’s book, A Parish for the Federal City, “Father Matthews’ coffin was dug up and opened on Halloween to reveal a remarkedly preserved body that [was] placed in a new coffin and installed on a catafalque before [an] altar.” Matthews was later reinterred at Mount Olivet Cemetery.
Another local historian, William Warner, suspects that some of the graveyard’s less exalted occupants were simply buried in pauper’s graves. According to Warner, the graveyard had to go because Catholics were consolidating their cemeteries, new plots weren’t available around the church, and “downtown land was too valuable.”
Were the bodies replaced by a new church? Not exactly. Historian Philip Ogilvie, D.C.’s former public-records administrator, fixes the graveyard’s location at the northeast corner of 10th and F Streets. That’s the present site of the Red Fox casual sportswear store, on the endangered commercial strip. According to MacGregor, the new St. Patrick’s, which is located just behind the strip, was financed in great part through commercial leases on the F Street lots.
In effect, the rebuilt, gray Gothic stone edifice paid its bills thanks to the bustling commercial district that grew up around it at the end of the 19th century—the same storefronts now slated for demolition so the church can build an even more profitable commercial building.
In fact, notions of a new office building on the church’s holdings on Square 376 date back at least until 1930. The driving factors: Downtown was already losing population at the time, and F Street had begun to slide into decline. But the leases on the current buildings continued. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, St. Patrick’s is again rethinking its F Street property. And once again, it’s planning to lease, not sell. The archdiocese is not letting go of a square foot of buildable land. “That’s the church’s approach,” says Thomas Wilbur, senior vice president of the John Akridge Cos., the developer that has been signed to construct the
new office building. “They lease land—they don’t sell it. It’s a long-term approach. They’re there for eternity.”
It’s Ash Wednesday, and the last of the St. Patrick’s parishioners have filed out of the 5:30 p.m. Mass with crosses smudged on their foreheads. Across 10th Street, at the boarded-up Woodward & Lothrop department store, another celebration is about to take place: Call it the Sacrament of Shopping.
Or, more accurately, the attempted Resurrection of Downtown Shopping.
Woodies has been closed for years. Developer Douglas Jemal would like to change that. Through the efforts of the local Downtown Business Improvement District, the D.C. Marketing Center and the D.C. government, a glitzy soiree has been organized to promote downtown as an emerging retail mecca to people attending the mid-Atlantic conference of the International Council of Shopping Centers.
As it gets dark, beams of light shoot skyward from a Baltimore Searchlight Services truck; a swirling spotlight occasionally sweeps across the stonework of St. Patrick’s. Limousines deposit well-groomed men and gowned women at the shuttered store’s entrance. The emporium’s bare interior has been converted into a disco for the night, with thumping music, colorful stage lighting, and free hors d’oeuvres and cocktails. In the middle of the cavernous expanse, four models dance on pedestals, their empty gazes resembling store mannequins’.
Inside, the party hosts hand guests wads of fake $20 bills featuring the portrait of D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams; each bill is emblazoned with the motto “In Shopping We Trust.” Everyone also gets a list of retail projects that are recent or “currently underway in D.C.”: Gallery Place at 7th and G Streets; The Shops at National Place (13th and F Streets); and, of course, the future retail and office incarnation of Woodies itself. But most telling, in terms of where the mayor stands on this development controversy, is the inclusion of “975 F Street,” an address that doesn’t yet exist in Washington.
“975 F Street” would actually be the legal result of the archdiocese’s request to consolidate 14 lots on the 900 block of F Street into one larger lot of record, which would accommodate its proposed 200,000-square-foot office and retail edifice. Though on Nov. 10, Quander, as the mayor’s agent for historic preservation, denied the church the demolition permits to raze the buildings currently on the block, Williams himself seems to have taken a vow of silence on the matter.
The lawyers have taken no such vows. In the wake of the permit rejection, attorneys for the archdiocese appealed because Quander’s decision was filed two months late—meaning that, under a 1998 law meant to reform D.C.’s notoriously slow permit-granting procedures, the demolition is deemed to be approved. Preservation lawyers, meanwhile, have filed suit to stop the demolition. The church appeal and the new preservation lawsuit have yet to wend their way through court.
But the opinion that Quander’s tardiness made the demolition permit unstoppable appears to be shared by the city’s Office of Corporation Counsel, which gave the nod to the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to issue demolition permits.
And as far as the city’s marketing apparatus is concerned, on Ash Wednesday, the office tower at 975 F Street is on.
The current preservation battle on F Street is in some ways about life after death, or the resurrection of downtown Washington’s east side. In recent decades, the church has had to persevere through decline, blight, and drug dealing, particularly on the now-defunct pedestrian mall that separated the church from the Martin Luther King Library. Meanwhile, the hub of the Washington business world moved to the other side of the White House. K Street supplanted F Street. Woodies and the original Hecht’s, the east side’s major department stores, have long been empty shells.
To downtown office workers, the big department store closings represented the loss of lunch-hour retail convenience. To the homeless, they represented the loss of public restrooms. To St. Patrick’s, the closings were just another symptom of a long-brewing downtown exodus: The shoppers were replaced with vagrants who sometimes scurried into the church vestibules to relieve themselves. The parish had been transformed from an office-worker mission to a poverty mission, with a few tourists and VIPs thrown in for good measure.
The low point came in 1984, when dwindling enrollments and budget pressures forced the closing of St. Patrick’s Academy, a Catholic preparatory school next to the church on G Street. At the time, church officials in search of resources to keep the school afloat considered redeveloping the F Street properties. A major drawback was what MacGregor has referred to as a growing “glut of office space,” which hit its high mark in the late ’80s.
Another impediment that kept the parish—and the rest of the east side—from joining the ’80s glass-box real estate boom was the new downtown historical district along the F Street corridor. The district, established in 1982, complicated the church’s redevelopment efforts there by protecting the historic commercial buildings that might stand in the way of more profitable rental office space.
Not that the church didn’t see it coming. Monsignor E. Robert Arthur, a former pastor at St. Patrick’s, is reported to have told officials in 1982 that the church’s F Street property provided the “necessary portion” of the money for the parish’s mission to the city, and represented “our hopes” for the survival of the school, according to MacGregor. “Do not force us to sacrifice St. Patrick’s Academy and perhaps more,” Arthur reportedly said, “in order to provide the city with a museum of late-19th-century low-rise commercial buildings.”
By 1987, the archdiocese apparently believed that the time had come to put its commercial strip along the 900 block of F Street to better use by building a modern office building. It was strictly a business proposition, and it fell apart as such.
The building contract was granted to a partnership that included developer Joseph W. Kaempfer Jr. In an April 15, 1987, letter to Cardinal James A. Hickey, the archbishop of Washington, Kaempfer, who had teamed up with builder A. James Clark to form CK Realty Inc., promised “[a] great building—one that will…use every available square foot of buildable area allowed under the zoning to maximize both the efficiency of the building and the return to the Archdiocese.”
The project was to be named Carroll Square, after John Carroll, America’s first Catholic bishop. But the developers and the church fathers ran smack into D.C.’s late-’80s real estate crash. Nothing was built. Against the advice of archdiocese staffers, Hickey granted a two-year extension. “Cardinal Hickey always felt that Jimmy Clark would do the right thing for the archdiocese,” one prelate said in a later court deposition.
Still, in 1995, the office building remained only a dream and a prayer—and, as far as the archdiocese and CK Realty were concerned, a series of predictable lawsuits and countersuits.
Preservation attorneys working on the current office tower controversy have been unable to extract from church officials the value of the archdiocese’s prospective lease with Akridge. In that regard, history is again instructive. Court documents filed in the 1995 case against CK Realty, which was finally settled out of court in 1997, set the value of the lease at a prospective $1.2 million a year after completion of the new building.
A June 1996 affidavit by Monsignor Kevin Farrell, the archdiocese’s finance director, laid out St. Patrick’s recent money woes: “The church survives financially by collecting rents from the small businesses that occupy commercial buildings located on property adjoining the church [F Street].” A new office tower, Farrell went on to say, would “secure the long-term financial stability of the church” and “alleviate the financial concerns of the parish.”
And since the legal unpleasantness was resolved between the archdiocese and CK Realty, somebody’s prayers have been answered: A new building boom is transforming downtown’s historic east side. Suddenly, St. Patrick’s and the archdiocese are riding a real estate wave of tsunamic proportions: The MCI Center. The new convention center. Gallery Place. It’s a wave some people worry will wash away the last vestiges of historic downtown.
Be that as it may, the prospect of a new office tower replacing the church’s decayed commercial strip is back. At the age of 79, Cardinal Hickey isn’t out dancing at Woodies, but he’s riding the wave just the same.
The 200,000 square feet of profitable development would land right on top of Michael Berman’s frizzy, pony-tailed head. A painter, Berman works in a second-floor studio above Bare Feet Shoes on the 900 block of F Street. He sees himself as a member of a vanishing arts colony that took hold in the cheap-rent environment of the shabby east side after retail fled D.C. for the suburbs. The artists share bathrooms, exhibition space, and political information for use in their battle against the church’s proposed office building.
In contrast to the gloomy scene on F Street’s littered sidewalks, Berman’s studio is a study in productive energy. Paintings and drawings crowd every available inch of wall space. A clutter of wood, paper, and canvas gives way to an overstuffed office with a computer and floor-to-ceiling shelves of vinyl records, books, and documents. The studio doubles as the headquarters of the Downtown Artists Coalition, a group of about 15 working artists whose studios occupy the apartments above the F Street storefronts. Along with the D.C. Preservation League and the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a planning advocacy group, they more or less make up the vanguard of the church’s opponents.
The building Berman rents in is one of the easiest to pick out on the 900 block of F Street, around the corner from St. Patrick’s. It’s painted black, as if in mourning, and covered over with vertical metal slats. But Berman painted the slats into a colorful mural, mirroring the shop windows below. In the alley behind the building—the narrow separation between the church and the stores—heavy construction equipment is in place to begin the
$4.5 million renovation of the former St. Patrick’s Academy building, also known as Carroll Hall.
Berman calls the presence of the heavy equipment a “reality check.” He and his group see the Carroll Hall renovation as the church’s first strike against downtown art, displacing the Washington Stage Guild (WSG), a theater group. Catholic Charities will be the building’s new occupant. But that’s only a quick left jab compared with the hard right hook that would come if the wrecking ball crashed into the F Street commercial buildings—and Berman’s studio.
The WSG was offered $200,000 to find new digs. The artists demanded a similar sum but were ignored. Some accused the WSG, which supports the church’s plans, of selling out. In a May 25 hearing, WSG Artistic Director John McDonald explained the transaction by reference to Shakespeare: “To quote from the second act of Hamlet, in Hamlet’s instruction to Polonius, ‘To see that the players are well bestowed,’ and I believe [the developer], in its contribution to our future, is indeed doing that,” McDonald said.
Indeed, in the downtown real estate game, it seems that everyone has a price. But Berman, renting on a month-to-month lease, sees grass-roots artistic expression being rapidly priced out of downtown. It’s doubtful that the working artists would be able to afford space in the new office building. The proposed “arts” uses—the minimal requirements set by downtown arts district zoning—stop somewhat short of actually providing space for people like him. Rather, they include such spectacles as a potential Barnes & Noble bookstore and some paintings in a few proposed restaurants.
To Berman, the demolition would be a betrayal of the vision of D.C.’s 1998 Arts Summit, which featured First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as a booster of the downtown arts district. Ten years out of art school at the University of Maryland, Berman can cite specific chapters, codes, and subsections of D.C. preservation law that are supposed to protect downtown’s overlapping arts and historic districts.
“This is the old downtown,” Berman says, looking down F Street. “When they destroy this, that’s it. This is the only sense of history that’s left. People don’t come down here to see glass boxes.”
Actually, if the church’s plans go ahead, what people will see will be a trick of the eye that is common enough to have earned its own sardonic moniker—”facadomy,” or “facadectomy.” Either term means the obliteration of all but the skin of an old building, which is saved as a historic-preservation element in an otherwise brand-new structure. One example stands on E Street between 6th and 7th Streets NW, a few blocks from St. Patrick’s. Viewed in the state of construction, the historic walls backed by stark emptiness suggest the Hollywood set effect that annoys so many preservationists.
The practice hasn’t escaped the notice of the city’s new planning director, Andrew Altman, who, like his boss, Mayor Williams, has otherwise yet to weigh in on the preservation battle over what the church hopes once again to call Carroll Square. “There’s some real validity to the question of whether it constitutes preservation,” Altman says.
Berman doubts he’ll ever be driving his grandchildren around showing them where he got his start in life as an artist. “The facades are becoming wallpaper,” he says. “You might as well draw on them.”
If the legal battle over F Street were a game of hoops, the church’s apparent demolition-permit victory might be called winning ugly. Quander’s ruling that demolishing the old buildings would be inconsistent with city preservation law would have blocked the church’s plan if it hadn’t missed the deadline. And that decision itself was the sequel to a D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board ruling that found the project inconsistent with the downtown historic district—but also somehow granted conceptual approval.
“The church is trying to take the high road, but it’s letting the lawyers do the talking,” Berman says. And, thanks to Quander’s tardiness, those lawyers have a loophole large enough to swing a wrecking ball through.
At a D.C. Council hearing on Valentine’s Day, preservation lawyer Andrea Ferster complained that “the church didn’t even bother to claim that the decision of the mayor’s agent was wrongly decided on any substantive basis.”
Ferster opened a new front in the legal war March 10 by challenging the permits in Superior Court. But for the moment, at least, the church’s lawyers at Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick & Lane, widely considered the premier land use and zoning firm in the city, seem to hold the upper hand. At the very least, they hold the permits.
Williams’ silence, meanwhile, has fueled speculation among artists and preservationists that Cardinal Hickey somehow got to the mayor—a member of the Catholic parish of St. Augustine on V Street NW—through some unholy private channel.
Cardinal Hickey won’t discuss the matter, according to Susan Gibbs, an archdiocese spokesperson. “The archbishop is 79. He doesn’t do press,” she says flatly. Williams’ spokesperson, Peggy Armstrong, says the mayor has purposely taken a hands-off approach to the dispute, deferring to his staff instead. The question remains: Do Hickey and the mayor talk? “Yeah, they talk,” Armstrong says. “One’s the mayor, and the other heads the archdiocese. So of course they talk to each other. But did they talk about this? I don’t think so.”
It wouldn’t be the first time, though, that the archdiocese was accused of flexing political muscle in recent city land disputes. In 1998, the archdiocese took its case to Congress when Catholic University found itself in a tug of war with the financially ailing U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home over a 49-acre parcel of land on North Capitol Street. Eventually, a compromise was reached.
And even as the Soldiers’ Home controversy was heating up, Hickey and priests representing the 41 Catholic parishes in D.C. met with then-Mayor Marion Barry and other city officials to discuss local matters of church and state. “I come here today as the leader of an archdiocese that plays an important role in stabilizing the city,” Hickey said at the time. “Our many parishes, schools, agencies, institutions act as anchors for Washington. We are a gentle giant, but truly a giant.”
When it comes to the temporal power of the church, everyone has a war story to tell. Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, who presided over the DCRA oversight hearings at which the demolition permits were debated, remembers the mid-’80s battle over Immaculata Preparatory School, which the archdiocese sold off to generate retirement income for aging nuns. Ambrose, whose two daughters had attended the school, was part of a parents group fighting to keep one of D.C.’s last Catholic girls’ schools open. The church won, as it probably will on F Street, she predicts. “I don’t know any other way of saying it,” she laments.
Not that the archdiocese always gets its way in the real estate game, as the chain link fence surrounding the vacant row houses adjoining St. Matthew’s Cathedral on Rhode Island Avenue NW testifies. That land is another patch of downtown church property that the archdiocese hopes to redevelop. Although the archdiocese finally won a favorable appeals court ruling last week, continued lawsuits by neighborhood groups and preservationists helped keep another office building at bay for more than a decade.
Maybe in another city—like Boston, New York, or Chicago—the church would not have been slowed down for so long. But this is Washington. “I grew up in Chicago, and the archdiocese had a lot of muscle there,” Ambrose says. “Washington has never been a large Catholic city.”
It’s a gray Sunday morning in February. Four homeless men are asleep under blankets between the neo-classical pillars in front of the Platinum nightclub on F Street. Around the corner, the pews at St. Patrick’s are half-full for 10 a.m. Mass. A few people join in the hymns, but the music director’s outstretched arms are mostly lifted in vain.
On this Sunday, a priest apologizes if the Mass feels perfunctory and businesslike. Instead of a homily, the congregation is treated to a pitch for the Cardinal’s Stewardship Appeal. Then there’s a pitch for Catholic Charities, which needs money to consolidate its offices and set up shop next door in Carroll Hall.
The appeal underscores the importance of the Catholic Charities operation, the archdiocese’s main charity arm.
The church, despite its many landholdings, is pleading hardship. “For all the talk of the church’s wealth, much of it is tied up in land, so it’s not liquid,” says Jim Castelli, former religion editor at the now-defunct Washington Star. “It’s like having all your money tied up in your house. But it’s not in your checking account. So they’re looking for ways to generate income.”
Along the way, another form of church sentimentality will have to go out the window—or rather, not come in the window. The proposed office building, rising up only 12 feet to the south of St. Patrick’s, would block sunlight from reaching the church’s stained-glass windows—a fact that critics have seized on as proof that the archdiocese is willing to sacrifice even its own church to chase the almighty dollar. “Windows in this church are not for looking out on the world,” said Judy Scott Feldman, a medievalist, testifying before Quander in May on behalf of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City. “They are for experiencing heavenly light streaming in.”
But the archdiocese’s argument before Quander was not based on aesthetics or historic consistency. Instead, the legal case came down to this: The office project has “special merit”—the legal term for a need strong enough to trump land-use rules—because it would produce revenue for the renovation of Carroll Hall, where Catholic Charities would be assured a place to stay for at least 20 years rent-free.
Church officials testified that Catholic Charities provides community services—food, clothing, shelter, a legal clinic, and family counseling—to 40,000 poor District residents every year. It’s the largest private provider of social services in the city, with an annual budget of about $15 million. “The economic challenge to operate these facilities and programs, and to provide funds—funding sources for programs like Catholic Charities—is obviously substantial,” the Rev. William O. Lori, the archdiocese’s auxiliary bishop and vicar general, testified before Quander last May. “Obviously, the archdiocese relies on many generous donors to sustain these programs….Also, the commercially used properties along F Street can be utilized to generate community support for service projects.”
As a gesture of good faith, Lori said the church was prepared to go forward with the Carroll Hall renovation immediately, before the new office building was built and generating rent. The gesture backfired, though, when the preservationists argued that it showed the church already had the financial resources to fund Catholic Charities’ new headquarters—without tearing down a piece of history on F Street.
The critics also countered that Catholic Charities, with 21 programs in 16 locations around the city, represents an asset to the city as a whole, rather than a “special” benefit to the historic district encompassing the 900 block of F Street. In his now-moot ruling, Quander agreed.
That skepticism drives clerics to exasperation. “We are providing—we are giving up the value of developing into offices that site [Carroll Hall], and we are giving it to Catholic Charities rent-free,” Monsignor Farrell testified. “Is that not special merit?…We are—we were—the first people on that block of St. Patrick’s. We will be there way, way—when most of us are no longer around here.”
So bring on the dancing mannequins!
If Quander’s blown-deadline loophole holds up, the basic plan for F Street is a $50 million mixed-use building done by Akridge, one of the city’s premier builders. The F Street project will help connect a blossoming 7th Street—a product of the 1997-built MCI Center—and the office development to the west. Renovation is all around. A Courtyard Marriott just opened in the old Riggs Bank building at the corner of 9th and F, and the old Masonic Temple across F Street is being refurbished by the Gallup Organization.
The developers say that change on the 900 block is good news, considering what’s there now. Wilbur, representing Akridge Cos. at the May hearing before Quander, testified that the strip is one of the few remaining pockets of downtown “that are really subject to blight and are really unpleasant places to be.” A measure of the current blight—and the church’s upside potential on the site—can be gauged from the yawning disparity between the average value of each lot, approximately $430,000, and the values of the buildings, which range from $4,000 to $8,000, according to Wilbur.
Artists who work there, meanwhile, say that if the commercial strip is blighted, the finger of blame should be pointed at the landowner. It’s the archdiocese that let them go, treated them like slum properties, didn’t keep them up. “If one wants to realize a profit on this site,” says architectural historian Sally Berk, “the logical way to do it is to clean it up, fix it up, and make the buildings viable.” Of course, the fate of another historic strip, across 7th Street from the MCI Center, isn’t a great advertisement for historic preservation as far as businesspeople are concerned. In the year since developer Douglas Jemal meticulously restored them, the classic buildings on that block have remained largely empty.
And then there’s a question about what period of history would be saved by preserving the church’s commercial buildings on F Street. Right now, the storefronts look more like the decadent 1960s than the gay 1890s. Some of the wood and stucco updates to the buildings over the years have covered over the original facades, which Akridge wants to return to their 1910 incarnations. By most measures, these buildings have more interest as architectural specimens than anything else. They’re certainly not pretty or distinctive.
Ultimately, all these shades of gray will probably be settled in court. “It’s really sad,” says urban environment planner Lara Day Kozak, who has tried unsuccessfully to get her concerns about the old buildings answered by the archdiocese. “It’s the typical battle between preservation and the economics of making more money. There has to be a better way of resolving these things.”
But for St. Patrick’s, a parish founded on a shrewd real estate deal, the pending showdown is a return to a traditional theme: the relationship between church land holdings and financial viability. “When you’re a landlord, there are always going to be tensions,” says Terry Lynch, of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, an alliance of central-city churches. “You just hope and pray for a good outcome.”
Maybe it’s all in the spirit of the Rev. Caffry. Warner describes Caffry as a “crusty and argumentative” priest who openly feuded with Bishop Carroll over the settlement terms of the new church property. The ongoing real estate efforts remind Warner of a story he tells in his history of D.C.’s Catholic church, At Peace With All Their Neighbors, in which he describes Caffry’s annoyance that the church lots had been conveyed in trust to Bishop Carroll, not to Caffry. Carroll gave in to Caffry’s pressure.
But six months later, according to Warner, Caffry was asking for help in deferring the church’s first land payment. The early congregation of “tradesmen, laborers, and…new settlers” was having trouble raising the cash.
The suburban refugees who now make up St. Patrick’s small permanent congregation face a new dilemma. The neighborhood around St. Patrick’s is still richer in land than in people, much like the rest of downtown. Without people, the church is a museum.
“Jesus didn’t start the church to run museums,” observes the Rev. Thomas Reeves, editor of the Jesuit magazine America. Reeves points out that inner-city parishes like St. Patrick’s could benefit from the gentrification that’s going on all over America. But the problem, he adds, is that “young, yuppie couples without children are not great church attendees.”
And until such people start going to Mass, church fathers have apparently calculated that St. Patrick’s future would be helped greatly by an office building next door, however much it might overshadow the church and disrupt its present neighbors. Call it the ghost of the Rev. Caffry. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.