In the District, where a number of different groups* can nominate a property as an historic landmark, it’s not uncommon for the owner of the building to disagree that it’s worth protecting. The most high profile case recently was a religious institution: The Third Church of Christ Scientist, which went through lengthy litigation before coming to a settlement that would allow for the Brutalist building’s demolition.
It’s unlikely that the old York Theater on Georgia Avenue and Quebec Place NW, which has been used by the Fisherman of Men church since 1977, will grab quite as many headlines. But the difference is in degree, not in kind.
Last summer, the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for the area, Kent Boese, noticed that the church had removed the tin fascia that run all the way around the building’s facade, and was replacing it with foam and stucco. As the church’s luck would have it, Boese happens to have written the book on the history of the neighborhood. He found out that the structure had been designed in 1919 by Reginald Geare, the same guy who designed the Lincoln Theater on U Street, and built by Edgar Kennedy (that’s his name on the Kennedy-Warren apartments). Although utilitarian in appearance, Boese contends that was an intentional precursor to form-follows-function modernism; the seven archways were used to exhibit posters for films on each day of the week.
The church fully renovated the inside, and planned only small changes to the outside—-but Boese worried the “facelift” had already damaged the building’s historical integrity. So, a few weeks ago, he submitted a landmark application that lays out the building’s history and its significance as “an excellent and unique example of the early 20th century neighborhood movie house design.”
The attempt at mandated preservation didn’t go over well with Bishop Clarence Groover. If the Historic Preservation Review Board approves the nomination, he’d have to get additional permits for substantial alterations, and knocking the building down would be next to impossible. “We’re currently taking measures to fight that,” he tells me. “If an opportunity ever come that we could do something there, that wouldn’t be possible, because of the restrictions.”
Opportunities may very well come. It’s at ground zero for gentrifying Petworth/Park View; Groover says he gets calls every once in a while from developers interested in the property. He hasn’t been interested in selling, so far, because there’s no obvious place to move to. “When you sell a building, you have to know that you’ll be able to reestablish and be in a better position than you are before the sale,” he says. And Groover would know: Before Georgia Avenue, the church occupied a house at 1222 Maryland Avenue NE, which he says he decided to leave when the Capitol Hill Restoration Society wanted to designate that property as well (they apparently failed: That property falls just outside the Capitol Hill historic district).
And of course, this conversation carries the usual overlay of long-term residents vs. newer ones. Although most of Groover’s congregation doesn’t live in the immediate neighborhood, he’s quick to say that the church itself made it though the Metro construction and has been a part of Georgia Avenue for decades, and that the ANC has ulterior motives for wanting to landmark his building. “It doesn’t have that much historic value in the first place,” Groover says. “In my mind, the commission is doing it out of a dislike, or whatever their interests are…I think their purpose is they just want the church out.”
For his part, Boese says he just wants to preserve one of the few historic buildings in the area—-he’s also submitted a nomination for the Park View school—-and this was the only way to do it. “I did struggle long and hard about the right way to go about this,” he says. “I’m sure they won’t be happy, but I didn’t know what else to do.”
The Historic Preservation Review Board may very well not take it up at all—-they usually consider properties that are under immediate danger of development. Either way, those tin fascia are probably gone for good.
* CORRECTION, 8:30 a.m., May 2 – Due to a reporting error, this post originally misstated who can submit landmark nominations. Only historic groups, advisory neighborhood commissions, and government agencies may do so. It also misstated the location of the church, which is at Quebec Place NW, not Quincy Street NW.