Church’s Face-Lift Plans Uncover Ties to U.S. Capitol Architect

Aug 27, 2007   •  

During its 155-year existence, the building at 500 I St. NW has always been a house of worship — first Presbyterian, then Jewish, then Baptist, now Chinese. But only recently have historians rediscovered the secret behind its plain facade.

Underneath the church’s stucco-like covering, applied decades ago, is the original church, built in 1852 of brick and sandstone. Through research and a little luck, historians determined recently that the church’s designer was the same preeminent 19th-century architect who gave the U.S. Capitol the elegant wings and grand dome that define it today: Thomas Ustick Walter.

“It’s a very exciting find,” said Rebecca A. Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League.

The structure — home since May 2006 to the Chinese Community Church — is about to be stripped of its Formstone exterior. Gould Property Co., which is developing one of Chinatown’s biggest office buildings on nearby Massachusetts Avenue NW, has agreed to pay the church $600,000 to remove the facade and make roof repairs. The work will begin in the fall or spring, church official Gate Lew said. A Gould official referred questions to Lew.

The historic value of the church came as a surprise to the congregation: “We knew it was old, we knew it was historic, but we didn’t know it was that important,” Lew said. About 200 people attend Sunday services there in Mandarin, Cantonese and English, he said.

There is no marker that credits Walter, a Philadelphia-based architect who became the fourth architect of the Capitol, with the design of what began as the District’s Fifth Presbyterian Church. In fact, researchers with EHT Traceries Inc., a historic preservation firm working on the project, found that the Washington Star’s Nov. 7, 1853, report on the church dedication mentioned only the builder, Thomas B. Entwistle.

Walter, who designed churches, courthouses and orphanages (as well as the Center Building at St. Elizabeths Hospital), apparently lent church officials some designs he had drawn, the historians said.

“That’s why there is no drawing that is labeled that: He gave a design used somewhere else,” said Emily Eig, president of EHT. “He didn’t charge for it. He was a Baptist, but he did a lot for Presbyterians, including a church in Shanghai.”

In his time, Walter (1804-1887) was known as the dean of American architecture. Basing his plans on Greek models, he designed Philadelphia’s City Hall, the interior of the Library of Congress and extensions for the U.S. patent office and the Treasury Building. Walter was one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects in 1857 and served as its president from 1867 until his death.

Walter moved to Washington in 1851 to begin work on doubling the size of the Capitol and erecting its famous cast-iron dome. In Walter’s diaries at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, EHT historian Andrea Schoenfeld found this intriguing entry, dated Aug. 4, 1852: “Interview with Com of Presbyterians reference to a new Church, lent them a drawing and specifications.”

An Alabama college professor who is an expert on Washington’s historic churches — and whom Eig had met at a D.C. conference this spring — was called in for consultation. David R. Bains, a religion professor at Samford University in Birmingham, quickly found another Walter connection.

“From my research, I had seen in a Presbyterian newspaper that in raising funds for that church, they said it was designed by Thomas U. Walter,” Bains said.

The Rev. John C. Smith, a 19th-century Presbyterian minister known as “the church builder,” ran fundraising appeals in the Christian Observer. The property at Fifth and I streets NW had been donated already, he said. But, as he reported in the July 10, 1852, edition, “We need large subscriptions at once, to secure the creation of the house before winter, that the session room at least may be used.”

Smith was successful, raising $13,000, mostly in small contributions from 23 states, Bains said. On Sept. 11, 1852, the Christian Observer reported that the cornerstone for the new church had been laid. According to the article, “the edifice about to be erected, has been designed by Thos. U. Walter, Esq., architect of the Extension of the Capitol. It will be a plain, neat and substantial building, 60 feet by 80, constructed from the best materials, with a strict regard to economy.”

A few years later, the church was renamed Assembly’s Presbyterian Church. The building became a synagogue, Ohev Sholom, in 1906, when Assembly’s merged with another church, and remained so for a half century. After that, the church was home to Corinthian Baptist Church, which later relocated to Prince George’s County. The Formstone was added in the 1950s, when such facades were popular.

Lew said he is not sure if the church’s steeple, removed when it became a synagogue, will be restored. “This is exciting for us,” he said. “But we are slowly plodding along.”

By Sue Anne Pressley Montes

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