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Future Of Brutalist-Designed Church Not Concrete

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Future Of Brutalist-Designed Church Not Concrete


Future Of Brutalist-Designed Church Not Concrete

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In Washington, D.C., some Christian scientists want their church torn down. It's two blocks from the White House, and frankly, it looks more like a fortress than a house of worship. Some call it ugly, others call it visionary. The church members want to get rid of it and build another. But they can't.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty explains why.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Third Church, as it's called, is a hulking mass of raw concrete. One window, no steeple, and its bells are suspended from a slab of concrete that juts out from the side. When it was built in 1971, it created a sensation. It still does today.

Mr. BELTRAN ROMERO (Tourist): It's like a weird box in the middle of Washington with bells in one side. What is it? It's a church.

HAGERTY: That's Beltran Romero, who's visiting from Spain. Then there's Laverne Hill, who works around the corner.

What do you think of this building?

Ms. LAVERNE HILL: What? Well, you just dumped a bunch of concrete down here and shaped it into a box.

HAGERTY: Which is, in fact, what the architects did. The building is a classic example of brutalism, which was popular in the 1950s and '60s, but soon after, fell out of favor. The concrete was poured on the spot, leaving a 60-foot tall bunker that is hard to heat, harder to cool, and almost impossible to find an entrance.

Darrow Kirkpatrick, a longtime church member, says the building sends precisely the wrong message.

Mr. DARROW KIRKPATRICK (Church member): We think it says, stay away. Something goes on in here that's, you know, that they don't want to get outside, which is exactly wrong for all Christianity.

HAGERTY: Form is not the only problem. There's also function. The concrete absorbs water and the building is cracking, the skylight blinds the organist. And then, there are the lights.

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: It's $5,000 to $8,000 to change a light bulb. And the reason for that is that you have to erect scaffolding down here to get up there and change the light bulbs or the ballast.

HAGERTY: The congregation wants to tear down the building and build another smaller church, but they can't. In 1991, unknown to them, a group of preservationists applied to have Third Church designated a historical landmark. From that moment, the congregation could not touch the building. Last year, the city officially landmarked it, and now, Third Church is suing to have the status removed. Kirkpatrick says the restrictions infringe on their freedom of religion.

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Nothing expresses a church's religious exercise anymore than its architecture. And this architecture does not express our theology and our religious exercise. The low bar of brutalism is not our religious expression.

HAGERTY: But it's going to be tough to win in court. Robert Tuttle, a church-state expert at George Washington Law School, says cost and inconvenience are not enough. Churches often have to show that the landmark status makes it extremely difficult to practice their religion. He says it's the prize of preserving a piece of history.

Professor ROBERT TUTTLE (George Washington Law School): As long as you can continue to get some value from your property, the government is allowed to regulate it. And that's what's happening in historic preservation. The story of land use regulation is that you don't get to do what you want.

HAGERTY: Fixler is an architect himself. He's at the forefront of preserving modern architecture. He says what's considered ugly today may be revered 50 years from now. But even he admits that preserving brutalist architecture isn't so easy. Across the country, people are racing to tear down similar buildings like Boston City Hall and preservationists are scurrying to get them land marked before that happens. All of which is of little concern to the members of Third Church who are caught in the middle of this high minded debate. They just want a new church.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And at our Web site, you can see a photo gallery of examples of brutalist architecture, that's at

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