Politics & Policy

Eminent Domain in Reverse

D.C. interest groups seek to 'preserve' an eyesore.

It may be the ugliest building in Washington, D.C.

The boxy concrete structure squats on the corner of 16th and I Streets, just a couple of blocks from the White House. “People walking by probably think it’s an emergency bunker,” says Eric Rassbach, an attorney.

The building is in fact the Third Church of Christ, Scientist. Built in 1971, it exemplifies a form of modernist architecture with a well-picked name: “brutalism.” The poured-concrete walls are high, and their starkness is emphasized on the east side by an extended slab from which several cold, metallic church bells hang. “There’s no great reaching to the heavens in the architecture,” said Chris Derosa from Oakhurst, N.J., a tourist who recently walked by the church. “There’s nothing emotional there.”

This type of modernist architecture has impoverished urban streetscapes across the country. Far from an aesthetic movement, brutalism conceives of itself as a cultural revolution, one that replaces bourgeois ornamentation — moldings, columns, entablatures, and steeples — with featureless concrete façades to provide the New Socialist Man with “machines for living” in the egalitarian and classless society that this architecture would supposedly help to create.

For years, members of the congregation have wanted to tear down their concrete monstrosity and build something new. But they’ve had to fight a sanctimonious band of meddlers who rely on the force of government to curtail property rights and, in this case, even religious freedom. They’re historic preservationists — normally a corps of well-meaning community activists, but, in their most militant varieties, enemies of common sense.

Groups such as the D.C. Preservation League and the Committee of 100 on the Federal City have lobbied hard to preserve the church as a solitary example of “brutalistic expression,” which sounds like a liberal congressman’s definition of waterboarding. Rebecca Miller, director of the Preservation League, says the church is “the premier example of brutalist architecture in the city.” In fact, there are several other brutalist buildings in Washington, including the J. Edgar Hoover Building (headquarters for the FBI and one of the best-known examples of the style). “But none of these is comparable to the Third Church,” says Miller.

“I don’t think we’re abrogating anyone’s rights,” says Laura Richards, chair of the Committee of 100.

The church sees its building as a house of worship, not a relic. “The building sends a message antithetical to the church’s message,” says Rassbach, who represents the Third Church.

Historic preservationists have blocked church members’ attempts to do anything about this for nearly 18 years. The Committee of 100 asked the Historic Preservation Review Board to designate the Third Church a landmark in 1991, against the church’s wishes. The church and the review board came to a gentlemen’s agreement whereby the review board agreed not to landmark the building if the church did not alter the structure.

This lasted until 2005, when the church asked for a hearing to remove the landmark application. The fight started again. By the end of 2007, the church had lost: The review board approved the landmarking, which legally blocked the church from moving forward with plans to demolish and rebuild. The Third Church filed suit in district court last year, claiming that the restrictions attached to the landmarking violated its religious freedoms.

The law seems to be on the church’s side. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 prevents the government from “substantially burdening” religious exercise, and a 2000 law, the Religious Land and Institutionalized Persons Act, specifically bars governments from imposing land-use regulations that burden religious freedom, except in the presence of a compelling public interest.

Last month, noting that the building’s high maintenance costs were a great financial burden, D.C. Director of Planning and Mayor’s Agent Harriet Tregoning decided the church could receive a raze permit despite the building’s landmark status. But because that status remains, the fight may not be over, so the church is continuing with its lawsuit. Also, “the mayor’s agent did not address any religious-freedom concerns,” says Darrow Kirkpatrick, a member of the Third Church and the chair of its redevelopment committee. “We want to see legislation from the D.C. city council so that this can’t happen again,” he adds.

This sort of historic-preservation abuse is perhaps best understood as the flipside of eminent-domain abuse. Through eminent domain, private developers force people off their land and out of their buildings. The worst historic preservationists do something similar, only they force people to keep their property as it is.

So whither property rights? Those are important, but “preservation is just like zoning — it’s in the public interest,” Miller says. “You can’t tear down a building two blocks from the White House and leave an empty lot.”

In many cases, the preservationists aren’t even trying to protect history. Many of their favorite buildings are just remnants of modernism, valued more for their architecture than their historic qualities. Two of the sites on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2009 list of most-endangered places are modernist architecture examples from the 1960s: the Miami Marine Stadium in Florida and the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. Modernist protection is one of the major projects for the National Trust, a nationwide organization based in Washington. Their website says the project “aims to enhance the public’s appreciation for and understanding of mid-20th Century architecture.”

The case of the Third Church involves not just property rights, but religious freedom — and if the church prevails, it may be for that reason only; other landowners may not be so lucky. As citizens realize that modernist architecture styles may not suit the needs of people in the 21st century, they will increasingly clash with preservationists. Local governments will have to decide whether to come down on the side of individuals and property rights — or of preservationists and brutalism.

           

– Michael Warren, a Collegiate Network intern at National Review, studies economics and history at Vanderbilt University.

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