Plans for St Thomas Parish at 18th and Church, NW

Dear PoPville,

St Thomas Parish at 18th and Church, NW appears to be rebuilding their church that burned down by arson in the 1970s. The old Gothic structure was beautiful and was the church of many Washington elites, such as FDR. I am a former parishioner and think the new design is bold, modern, and will make a great addition to the neighborhood. Photos can be found at the link I provided.

For the past few decades, there has been a park on the former grounds, which is where the new structure will be built.

Wow, the renderings look wild:

Though they were originally posted in Feb. 2011 so I’m guessing they’re still in the fundraising stage?

60 Comment

  • It looks like a 1970s house from the suburbs with handicap access. It’ll age badly. Very uninteresting or inspiring.

  • It seems like the supply of churches in DC, particularly in that neighborhood, already greatly exceeds demand. One of the results of demographic changes, I guess – DC’s new population seems to be less susceptible to being scammed out of their money in exchange for the promise of an afterlife in a fantasy world in the sky. With lots of churches, like the one at 13th and Irving, already for sale due to church supply exceeding demand, it seems like there shouldn’t be much need for building new churches. It would be a shame to replace such a nice park with another irrationality indoctrination center.

    • Actually, the park replaced the church that was burned and was redesigned—at great expense to the parish—to provide a welcoming space for members of the community, regardless of their faith or lack thereof, to come meditate, pray, eat their lunch, whatever.

      And anyone who has ever been to an Episcopal church knows we’re less consumed with the after life than with the present life. St. Thomas’ provided a haven for the hippies and radicals of the 60s and was one of the few churches in the early 80s that would provide a space for the funerals of people who had died of AIDS, regardless of their religion.

      St. Thomas’ was long known as “the gay church” because of its majority gay membership. But as Dupont Circle has gotten less gay, so has the parish.

      That said, the current parish is so fraught with ugly internal politics that will doubtless keep the new building from being built any time soon.

      • Over 80% of the pledges to St. Thomas’ are made by gay and lesbians. Is that not gay enough for you.

        • That 80% could be correct. Under the current rector who has been there about six years or so, dozens and dozens have left the parish (both gay and straight) for a variety of reasons. One result of this exodus was that the wonderful demogrpaphically diverse congregation actually became more gay as an active outreach brought in many younger gay men. Unfortunately, a number of them have also moved on, leaving a congregation that may not actually be supportive of a $5 million plus new sanctuary.

    • I daresay we have an Internet Atheist™ on our hands, folks!

  • If tey’re going to build a new church, since part of the old one remains, why not just reconstruct the old church and incorporate that wall into it? It’d be much more attractive and fit into the context of the area better than the proposed blocky, dull modernist thing.
    Quite frankly, I’d rather have a residential building incorporating the old wall, with ground floor retail there, rather than something which will only be used one morning a week.

    • The back wall that you reference is not structurally sound and would not allow for building out from it. That’s part of the reason the area is fenced off.

      • I know, but was thinking of basically building a new church in the old style behind it, even just using the materials from it and setting them in a modern structure. If they could incorporate the old, crumbling Irving Street facade into DCUSA, as recently discussed on PoP, incorporating this wall into new construction should be doable (if more expensive). It would be a terrible shame if the one portion of the old church that escaped the arson were torn down and replaced with a lackluster modern box.

        • The old ruins are incorporated into the new building as a chapel. I believe the chapel is named after Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

  • Well I hope they put enough money in reserves to SHOVEL THE DANG SIDEWALKS when it snows.

    God only knows why they think they don’t have to do so.

  • I prefer the park to that monstrosity.

    • And that is, indeed, another hurdle. I think they have to have some buy-in from the community, although I’m not sure what that entails exactly.

  • I think it looks awesome. I love the light.

    • The light is what sells it. Imagine that structure without the lighting. ‘Burban house.

      • Only architects renderings always look at least 3x better than the final product. The light will most definitely not look like this, and if it does, it’s a light pollution crime against nature. But whatever, the design is fine. You should all chill out.

  • Looks horrible. Like a kit built from IKEA.
    At least they could reinforce the old wall and incorporate it into the new building.
    Actually the least they could do is just leave the park for people wanting a place to pray.

  • Yikes. That rendering looks . . . um. . . . not good. It seems to me that a classic church-like structure (with apurtenant facilities) would make the most sense. Maybe the plan here is to build a structure that could be easily re-purposed if the church folds later down the road.

  • The existing small park offers much more chance to far more people to enjoy a few moments with whatever god they fancy than another church building ever will.

  • Jeez. It’s their church, their land. They get to decide if they need a new space, how they wish to serve the community, and what the new church is going to look like (though, as amateur architecture critics, we do have an unalienable right to take potshots at the design).

    So much whining.

  • Looks like a miniature Kennedy Center.

  • Great! Less green space in DC! And even more construction noise! Woot!

  • That building proposal is hideous. Did we not learn anything from the 70’s? Please please please do not build such a uninspiring building. A park is more precious to people than a building in this day and age.

  • Hi everyone. Thanks for the comments. I’m the architect and would like to invite everyone inside the Parish to see additional renderings and a physical model if you are interested in knowing more about the design. They are on display throughout the building. Please knock on the door and come in at your convenience!

    Best Regards

    • Hello,
      Thanks for chiming in. I’m not an architect, just a longtime DC architecture buff, and it seems to me (poring over Capital Losses) that the original church was a magnificent, ornate structure, and one that held a special place in the community, hence the preservation of the one remaining wall. You can see photos of the old church here, along with 70+ comments mostly agreeing that the proposed new design is unattractive at best:

      Why is the proposed new church such a radically un-church-like design? Clearly, the neighborhood would have preferred the old church to not have been torn down, and since that’s not possible, either preserving the park as-is, or building a new, attractive, contextual church reminiscent of the old one are the more realistic options. Instead, the design is sterile, monolithic, lacking in ornamentation, steeple, quality stone or brickwork, or any indication whatsoever that this is a mainline Anglican church. While many of us embrace modern architecture in some contexts, office buildings, government facilities, people just don’t like modern-style churches. Note the fate of the Christian Science church on 16th Street that was unloved from the beginning and finally is being demoilished in favor of a less-buker-like structure. Keep in mind the derisive terms used to describe other modernist churches, such as the “spaceship” in Rockville, or those once-fashionable A-frame churches from the 1970s. I suggest revisiting your design, taking into account the magnificent, ornate building that was once on the site, and coming up with something that looks more like a classic Episcopal church, and less like a roadside convenience store. 🙂

      • “Church-like design” is kind of a silly term. Religious edifices of all sorts – paleolithic stone circles, Moai, pyramids, Angkor Wat, Tikal, Notre Dame, have always represented an enormous investment of money and human labor under the guidance of visionary architects and engineers. And yes, perhaps some genuine religious zeal – man’s construction manifesting the glory of god etc.

        None of those factors are really in play anymore. Great engineers create fantastic bridges and – Dubai. Great architects design the Sydney opera house.

        Of course we city-dwellers would love to see inspired architecture everywhere, but the fact is that churches are a business and they no longer need great buildings to impress people, so there is no incentive to build them.

      • Wow. It’s one thing to have an opinion, but your lack of tact and general sense of bitterness shows through in this post. Not to mention your jaded outlook on life in general. A gas station? Really? When you find a gas station this beautiful, please feel compelled to post. In the meantime, take a lesson in etiquette. You can opine and have manners at the same time.

        I hope you find some way not to be miserable.

        • If you performed a test, showing two scale models of the OLD church and the proposed NEW church (same scale and level of detail and finishing) to say 1,000 random people, and asked them which design they preferred for a neighborhood church, my guess is 900 or more would choose the old, classic church over the new one. It’s just subjectively, and objectively uglier. The proportions are all wrong, there’s far less detail and ornamentation, and you know as well as I that the level of craftsmanship and materials in the new church would be lower and cheaper looking than the old one.

  • This will be a beautiful addition to the community. I will definitely attend services once constructed. It has such a peaceful, welcoming feeling.

  • Please consider going to the St. Thomas website and look at the walk-through animation. To “rebuild the old church” as it was is simply not financially feasible. As IrvingStreete points out, there is a lot of whining here. The sounds of construction are an inescapable part of living inside a city. As the animation details, this design incorporates (and preserves) the old structure inside very tastefully – balancing the old with the new needs of the congregation. The cascading windows of the building create a space that is bright, open, and welcoming; the very essence of what a congregation should be. I can’t wait to see it finished.

  • Personally, I like the plans for the new church, but I am rather fond of modern designs. I’d also say that its openness and light are perfect symbols of the kind of church St. Thomas’ is trying to be, particularly in partnership with Bishop Robinson in trying to form a center for nonviolent communication. As for trying to recreate the old church, well, that’s not who we are anymore; and to try to bring back the old just to satisfy an aesthetic nostalgia would be to go in entirely the wrong direction. I’m not an architectural expert, but I know what I like. And I like the design, and I like being a part of the parish.

    As for the internal politics, rumors of its ugliness and dysfunction have been greatly exaggerated.

  • Mike: You said, “At least they could reinforce the old wall and incorporate it into the new building.”

    Good news! The design does. You can’t see it from the angle depicted here but the building incorporates the remains of the prior chapel.

    Just my opinion, but I think the design is a refreshing dash of modernism that will give a little texture to the neighborhood without taking down any historic structures.

    Also, I’ve been to this church. They seriously need the space.

  • I think the rendering is nice, but commenting on that is missing the point. This is a place that works to serve the community. It is more than a building. It is a community. Being in construction, I understand the complexity of trying to convey the vision of a project. I have had the priveledge of viewing this one in detail and I am impressed.

    In this era of sound bytes and flash ad campaigns, it is easy to judge and slant negative. More research quickly reveals a symbolic, beautiful building that was conceived with thought and inspiration. More than that, though, is that this is more than a building. It is a community. A place of gathering. A place of worship. I, for one support it whole heatedly.

  • The gays love kitsch, so why not build a Brady Bunch chapel? Honestly, I think it will stick out like a sore thumb in the neighborhood. But as others have stated, the internal conflict, investigations, declining membership, dwindling donations and the constant stream of parishioners being shown the door by their priest leaves little hope for this project actually getting off the ground.

    • “The gays love kitsch,” – stereotype much?

    • I’m going to ignore the kitsch comment. That distasteful little excerpt has already been challenged. On other matters, posting ambiguous accusations about an individual or group under the cover of anonymity is – if I might borrow a simile for kitschy – just plain tacky.


  • The work that has gone into these plans is incredible, not just the renderings of the architect plans, but the work from the entire congregation to envision a new sanctuary in the first place. Matt listened to the wants, needs and prayers of all of us and captured it perfectly. We are a welcoming and inclusive parish and many of us are refugees of one sort or another from other sects of Christianity.

  • Why not just buy the church at 13th & Irving for 1.2 million? Guessing that would be cheaper. A congregation is about the people more than the building isn’t it?

    • Victoria –
      With all due respect, I fail to understand how asking St. Thomas’ to move to a location 2 miles away is a viable solution. Churches have roots in communities. Asking them to move is silly, but also so very counterproductive.

      I do not know for sure because it’s been a very long time since I lived in Columbia Heights, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the church at 13th and Irving is up for sale because that neighborhood has been experiencing gentrification for many years and many of the members of that church have probably been pushed out to other areas, leaving too few to support the church. In theory, asking St. Thomas’ to move so far could have the same effect.

      I do happen to agree that a church is about more than a building. If you really took the time to get to know about St. Thomas’ and their plans to build a new church, you’d realize St. Thomas’ is about much more than a building, too, and that they’re building because they’ve been worshipping in a cramped fellowship hall that was converted into a sanctuary after the church building burned down decades ago. They should be allowed to build on their land and use whichever design they deem appropriate.

      It’s kind of just that simple.


  • As a former resident of this neighborhood and former parishioner at St. Thomas’ (and, in the interest of full disclosure: an old friend of the architect), I feel the need to not only say something about the design, but the tenor of the discourse in this thread.

    The congregation at St. Thomas worked very closely with Matt, the architect, on this design. I was there when the process first started and can speak to the very difficult questions this group asked of themselves, particularly how they could design a church that continued to facilitate the parish’s service mission and best reflect its hospitality in this all-too-inhospitable town through the architecture. Building a church more reminiscent of the old church, preserving the ruins, and saving or sacrificing the park (which in recent years had come to be mistreated by lazy pet owners and others, I might add) were among the very many issues that were considered. (And, with all due respect to mrtindc, the congregation is quite aware of what the old church looked like). Much of this is well-documented online. I encourage everyone to visit the church website for more information about the church and the design. And, since Matt has extended the invitation, I hope that those who care about what happens on this rather small plot of Dupont Circle land will go to the church to review the plans and models. Armchair critics should, alternately, revisit an old adage: ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.’ In any event, I know that if you have actual concerns, Matt and the church’s rector will likely be happy to listen. Also, I am pretty certain you don’t have to worry about them proselytizing, shall you choose to visit, so even the apparent atheist should drop in. You can expect them to welcome you with an open mind.

    I read every comment, taking a moment to consider some of the very few coherent and thoughtful points made. For as many times as words like ‘monstrosity’ and ‘uninspiring’ are used, the only things I can find here that resemble either are the discourteous, rude, uninformed, and irrelevant comments made. As someone else commented, this church has served this community – including various stigmatized populations such as the homeless, the gay community, and men and women living with HIV and AIDS – for many decades. Assuming many of the commenters are actually neighbors of the church, I dare say that the lack of knowledge about St. Thomas’ work, worship, and theology are a sad reflection of our modern culture, wherein individuals demonstrate little desire to establish connections in their own communities and self-interested, idle prattle replaces meaningful dialogue.

    This church doesn’t look like your parents’ church. True enough. But that’s because it’s not the stuffy granite block wall and hard oak pew kind of place. This difference in the character of the church community is actually part of the point of the design. You will see this if you gather more information. The idea that a church has to look a certain way is just silly – just as silly as the notion that all churches are centers of irrational indoctrination. Everyone is welcome to their opinion, but in sharing an opinion, I hope everyone can be more respectful of this church and it’s congregation, which has served this community well for so long.

    St. Thomas’ – the congregation and its leadership – welcomed me at a time when I was somewhat skeptical about organized religion and was there for me during a pivotal change in my life, which had the somewhat unfortunate effect of my having to leave the church and move nearly 3,000 miles away to pursue a new career. These are good people. Let’s please be good neighbors.

    Dan Maxey
    Los Angeles, CA

    • Well said Dan. Score one for online civility.

      • Thanks. I don’t have a lot of patience for all of the nonsense that goes on in comments sections. And, I also don’t think we have to or should just accept that any public forum is a place where we will decide to overlook the rude, ignorant, or uninformed things people will say when we do not require them to stake their reputation on it. In this thread, I happened to know enough to say something productive, so I did.

        We can have different ideas, but it doesn’t mean that we should say whatever we want to people, make decisions for them, and speak as though we know what we’re talking about when we don’t.

        Civility is underrated.

        • Dan,
          Do you think it’s good or civil when the rector of a parish threatens to sue, SUE!, two members of the parish who question her egomaniacal visions for a multi-million-dollar construction project that a parish of deluded 20-somethings can’t possibly afford? That she refuses to offer them communion? Remember, she drove the older members, who actually provided substantial sums to the parish, away. Please…Of course, you’re not there anymore, so you probably don’t know about that.

          • I don’t know anything about it and I don’t address issues for which I have no knowledge. I can say that the entire church community, including the rector, has been incredibly supportive of me for many years and for that I am incredibly grateful.

    • The truth is that churches are similar to high school sports programs in their competitiveness. It is rare to even see a church cooperative with another church even within its own denomination. Within a half a mile of St. Thomas there is a another episcopal church that is struggling to keep its doors open, St. Luke’s. It has a wonderful tradition, a nice facility, and is one of the first episcopal churches built to serve Washington’s African American Community. No consideration or discussions were able made about the possible merging of these two fine congregations. St. Thomas currently has one active African American member.

  • Seems quite amazing to me that people have such nasty opinions concerning something about which they have very little actual information but quite common these days, I fear. The parish built the park when it was felt that they didn’t have the resources to do anything else with the land. Forty years later the congregation feels that our mission in the community goes ‘way beyond providing neighborhood residents a place to allow their dogs to poop without cleaning up after them.

    This is a wonderful place to worship and gets more so all the time. Clearly many of you find a community of religious people so threatening that you must make anonymous insults and degrading remarks about the parish and our decisions regarding our futue. Your right, perhaps, to make them, but my right to think you’re not someone I’d want in the seat next to me!

    • Always keep an open heart and open mind with regard to who might sit in that seat next to you – even if they might not seem to ‘get it’ today.

  • I can certainly understand the hurt and resentment some people feel toward Christianity and even religion in general. I’ve been there myself to an extent, but the Episcopal Church has provided a welcoming home and place for healing for many, including myself. St. Thomas’ has been that for more than a few, not just a place of respite but also a challenge for growth.

    Frankly, the best way to learn more about the church community there is to visit. As Philip said to Nathanael about Jesus, “Come and see.” As for those who’ve posted, well, less than courteous comments, I might not welcome those particular comments, but I’d certainly welcome the person to sit next to me.

  • Although I’m generally a traditionalist when it comes to architectural design (and prefer pews to chairs in church), I really like this. It fits the spirit of the congregation.

  • 1) All the members from the congregation who worked so hard with Matt to design something amazing… Ever been too involved in a project to see the flaws? I have. Rather than rush to defend you baby from some admittedly nasty people, try to listen to the criticism in a positive way.

    2) This thing does have issues. I’m no expert but it has issues. That roof…

    3) It doesn’t look like a church. Cliches exist for a reason. We’re comfortable with them. This is confusing.

    4) Serious question – why is it that whenever a church burns down you hear about how they don’t have enough money to rebuild? Do they not purchase fire insurance? Are they always underinsured? Curious.

    • Well said, anonymous. I see a defensive tone shaping up here among members of the congregation circling the wagons around this plain, unattractive design. They go on and on about how wonderfully light, airy, and open the new design is, and I wonder if some sort of eye disease has infected the congregation! Lol. I like the idea of buying one of the several classic churches for sale around the city and selling this plot of land to developmers. Quiate frankly, a boring old condo building would look better than this church!

  • A number of people have mentioned that it doesn’t look like a church. Well, let me ask this: What is a church supposed to look like? I’ve studied church architecture throughout history and around the world, and to be honest there’s no one answer for that. Some of the questions that I ask when it comes to church design are 1) Does it meet the needs of the worshiping congregation? 2) Is it something that will last? (Though, frankly, that’s something that can only be answered in hindsight.) and 3) What is the theology that the building expresses?

  • Washington Post, August 20, 2010:

    “Now, congregants are realizing they don’t all share the same views on what a church — their church — should look like, should be or should do (“A church should look like the National Cathedral,” said one prominent congregant, “not something Mike Brady designed”). The congregation is a motley crew — former Catholics, Lutherans, Evangelicals, Quakers, families from Silver Spring and Alexandria, African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, and a pride parade’s worth of gays (“a He-Man Woman Haters’ Club for Jesus,” said one, “except we actually do have female members, and they’re pretty cool too”). There’s enough trusting fellowship that weekly bulletins list, by name, unemployed parishioners seeking prayers and jobs. Still, there are only 150-ish congregants and they’re not rich; what does a zero-budgeted church look like? And, as Christians, how do they wrestle with the very act of building — the selfishness and vanity and audacity of it, so counter to their values?”

  • I’ve seen a lot of objectionable modern architecture, but I don’t see anything objectionable about this rendering.

    It reminds me of the Kennedy Center, and I like the Kennedy Center. Some architecture from that period looks pretty ugly (Watergate, I’m looking at you), but the Kennedy Center looks simple and elegant.

    I’m kind of surprised that the rendering has inspired so much criticism. Maybe it’s because people’s feelings about churches, religion, etc. — both positive and negative — are wrapped up in their assessments.

  • One should always consider the nature of these PoP comment threads, filled as they are with preening self regard and hyperbole, before making the mistake of taking them seriously. One thing the typical DC blog commenter never doubts is the unassailable righteousness of his or her personal preferences, coupled with a readiness to spout an uniformed opinion about anything that runs counter to them. I think it is a beautiful and thoughtful design. Your mileage may vary, but a thoughtful critique would be respectful and acknowledge the limits of your own judgment. This isn’t really the place for thoughtful, though.

    • Appreciate your response, but I disagree with your perspective on thoughtful comments.

      When did we all agree that it would be OK to allow people to be nasty to other people behind a cover of anonymity? The type of ignorance and lack of information generally reflected in comments sections is emblematic of the broader divide in our civic affairs and discourse. Frankly, that’s all the more reason to challenge it. I’m far more concerned about the broader societal implications than I am about some of the opinions communicated. (You think the church looks like an IKEA kit? OK.)

      We’ve made it easier and easier for people to be less informed (who wants to do the hard work to be informed when people are not held accountable?), think less for themselves (critical thinking skills are pretty important), and be demean other people in a way they probably wouldn’t if they had to attach their name to their so-called criticisms.

      I applaud the handful of sites that have taken some steps toward taking the anonymity out of equation. I don’t know the folks at Prince of Petworth… Dare to be the next to take a principled stand?

      In any event, dumbing down the discourse – at any level – doesn’t serve anyone well.

      Dan Maxey

  • The parish has worked hard to raise money. After two years of fundraising, however, it is still a long way from raising the six million dollars plus to build the new church and most of the membership is exhausted by these efforts. The leadership of the church will also be selling the church parking lot which fronts on P Street in its efforts to raise the necessary funds so look for the parking impact in the immediate neighborhood once these parking spaces no longer exist. Moreover, the neighborhood can expect more construction after the parking lot is sold. Despite these efforts, you can expect to enjoy the park for several years to come. Many parishioners now realize the fact that the construction of this building will not happen but do not express these views openly for fear of being isolated and ostracized.

    • You forgot to mention that this little adventure has cost them close to half a million dollars, depleting their reserves and reducing the income they need for their annual operating budget. Other than that everything is no doubt fine — as long as you keep your mouth shut and your opinions to yourself. What I don’t understand is how people who feel this way continue to go to this church … talk about self-denial and perhaps a dash of hypocritical personality disorder …

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