In 1976, a large segment of Washington D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of the important architectural and cultural significance of many of its buildings. Boasting proximity to the seat of government on the National Mall, Capitol Hill is largely composed of rowhouses built to house people who worked for the fledgling federal government in the years following the city’s establishment as the nation’s capital. Constructed during the Federal period (1800-20) through the Victorian era (up to 1910), these rowhouses form the core of the structures contributing to Capitol Hill’s historic designation.
Because the neighborhood was one of the earliest to adopt widespread installation of electricity, indoor plumbing, and piped water after the Civil War, it soared in popularity and experienced a building boom from 1890-1910. Many of its most significant buildings date from that period. Nestled amid the rowhouses are other architectural landmarks that served the neighborhood in cultural and societal functions, including some notable religious buildings.
Although some of these structures are still utilized for their original purposes, changes in the neighborhood’s demographics and the economic burden of maintaining aging buildings have made continued function as worship spaces untenable for some of these buildings. Often left vacant as congregations move to the suburbs, inner-city churches around the country are especially vulnerable to abandonment and decay. This has particular perils for a historic district that relies on the preservation of significant buildings to retain its historical character.
How can these architectural treasures be preserved when they are no longer suited to the function for which they were built? Recent interest in adaptive reuse has opened new avenues for bringing older religious buildings back into useful service. In Capitol Hill, these efforts have a new showpiece: Bell Tower at Stanton Park, the winner of a Metamorphosis Award in the Multifamily category.
PHOTOS: Sean Shanahan
At the corner of Maryland Ave and Sixth Street NE, across from Stanton Park, sits a stately Romanesque Revival edifice of Potomac bluestone with limestone trim built in 1891. Designed by noted Washington architect Appleton P. Clark Jr., the 16,800-square-foot building has a prominent 130-foot-tall round bell tower and was once nicknamed “the lighthouse on the hill.” For 62 years, it was the Eastern Presbyterian Church and echoed with the sounds of sermons, songs and the congregation’s socializing. After World War II, membership decreased as many congregants moved to new developments in the suburbs. This led Eastern Presbyterian to consolidate itself with another nearby congregation and offer the building for sale in 1955 to the Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church, which owned and worshiped there for nearly 40 years.
In 1994, the African American Catholic Congregation Inc., also known as the Imani Temple, bought the building. After its own rewarding chapter in the facility, the leadership of the Imani Temple decided the church no longer met the congregation’s needs. With the general waning of religious participation in the U.S. coupled with the building’s ongoing maintenance challenges—well beyond the patch and repair work that had kept it functioning—Imani Temple representatives were not able to find another church interested in purchasing the building, yet its historical value made it impossible to simply destroy. They turned to the idea of adapting the building for an entirely different use and sold the building to Morningstar Community Development LLC, Washington, which focuses on infill, transit-oriented development and redevelopment projects often in emerging neighborhoods.
Sensitive to interest in keeping the character of the neighborhood intact, the new owners sought community input and collaborated with agencies and committees to come up with a solution. Committed to preserve the church’s historical exterior to meet the requirements of the Historical Preservation Review Board of Washington, D.C., Morningstar Community Development representatives turned to architects and interior designers at Alexandria, Va.-based Cooper Carry to transform the interior of the towering church into residential condominiums. Because the building is bordered by roads on three sides, limited street parking determined the number of units that could be considered.
As expected, the constraints of subdividing a large building into individual units without adding entrances or removing windows presented a unique challenge. Because horizontal divisions would impact the intricate stained-glass windows that lined the exterior, the designers decided to divide the building vertically into six 3-story units suffused with light and lofty 15-foot ceiling heights. Clever use of lightwells allowed them to equalize floor heights while leaving the windows unobstructed.
The two- to four-bedroom units vary in size from 2,293 square feet to 2,765 square feet. Each has a private entrance, dedicated elevator, gourmet kitchen and built-in sound system. Common spaces include a shared wine cellar in the basement and the church tower with its breathtaking views. The bell tower had previously only been accessible to pigeons by air or to humans by ladder from the mezzanine in the sanctuary. Although space constraints prevented a stairway that meets current code, architects worked with the city to create a custom spiral staircase of wrought iron with wood treads to access the observation deck. Only a handful of blocks from the U.S. Capitol, without any neighboring high-rises, the view from the tower is unique and unparalleled in the area.
The project’s designers strove to respect and celebrate the historic nature of the site and structure. The sanctuary’s hardwood floors were preserved and refinished as flooring on the first level of the condominiums. Light fixtures were restored for use in the lobby and tower. Each unit also incorporates unique retained elements of the church: arches and columns, floor-to-ceiling stained-glass windows, exposed brick and stone walls, an interior domed ceiling in one unit, two fireplaces in another, turrets in two others.
All the building’s stained-glass windows were removed, cleaned and painstakingly rebuilt. Lighter areas were replaced with clear glass to allow some transparency for the homeowners without changing their exterior appearance. Many of the larger windows were fitted with slimline interior storm windows to boost energy efficiency. Egress requirements for bedroom spaces inspired innovative designs to convert some to casement windows that swing open and to pin-mount triangular windows, enabling them to swivel on an axis.
Clear windows at the basement level were replaced with custom replicas that incorporate modern energy efficiency and security features. The exterior condensers for the HVAC systems are discreetly located between windows in the basement window wells, disguised by staircases. Roof units and venting were concentrated on a flat area above the nave that is concealed from street view.
Thick doors of hand-carved mahogany grace each exterior entrance. Half the units open off a shared lobby at the former main portal to the church. The other three have private access along the sides of the building where emergency exits had formerly been located. Because these original entrances were half a story above grade, historical considerations necessitated compromises on ADA accessibility.
Although the building is old, the project’s commitment to sustainability is cutting-edge. Spray-foam insulation with the highest R-value available per square foot fills the wall cavities for a robust thermal envelope even though the walls benefit from the slow heat transfer that comes from their nearly 2-foot thickness. Exterior landscaping includes rain gardens that capture rainwater. The building implements sustainable features, such as ENERGY STAR appliances, low-flow plumbing fixtures, LED lighting fixtures and high-efficiency HVAC systems. The building is expected to receive LEED for Homes certification.
Bringing together modern efficiency with timeless style, Bell Tower at Stanton Park provides a roadmap for adapting historical religious structures for contemporary uses with sensitivity and respect. The project demonstrates the benefits of working with community and regulatory groups to find mutually acceptable solutions.
In Washington, D.C., where housing supply is tight and there are few industrial spaces that might be converted for residential use, adapting former religious structures to housing may be rewarding for developers despite the logistical challenges involved. There is tremendous benefit to a whole community when a beautiful, historic building is rescued from abandonment and decay.
That doesn’t mean that such projects will always be greeted with open arms. As a building endowed with memories and associations that span generations, a church is more than just brick and mortar to the people who care about it. Sensitive developers will celebrate and respect these emotional connections, seek the support of neighbors and make thoughtful decisions about which elements of the church structure to retain. Conversations about these issues are an opportunity for people to come together to preserve a historic edifice and cooperate in the task of building community.
METAMORPHOSIS AWARD WINNER and ARCHITECT: Cooper Carry, Alexandria, Va.
GENERAL CONTRACTOR: MCN Build, Washington, D.C.
MEP ENGINEER: Setty, Fairfax, Va.
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Adtek, Fairfax
CIVIL ENGINEER: Bowman Consulting, Washington
LEED CONSULTANT: Steven Winter Associates Inc., Washington
IT/AV CONSULTANT: Genesys Impact, Washington
CUSTOM SPIRAL STAIRS AT BELL TOWER: Linder Enterprises
SLATE SHINGLES: Buckingham Slate Co.
NEW WOOD WINDOWS: Signature Series from Weather Shield Windows & Doors
CERAMIC TILE: Coleville from Trinity Tile
KITCHEN CABINETS: Scavolini
ELEVATORS: Luxury Lift LLT 950 from Residential Elevators