The Preservation Dilemma

The Preservation Dilemma

Church officials clash with historic preservationists over a 190-year-old wall.

Members of the Alexandria City Council found themselves with a dilemma Saturday as they considered the fate of a major renovation to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. During a public hearing in council chambers, historic preservationists objected to the parishioners’ plan to drill 22 holes into the north exterior wall of a sanctuary built by renowned architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Church officials said that the holes were necessary to install a protective glass ceiling over the exterior of the north wall, creating a handicapped-accessible route into the sanctuary.

The debate presented a problem for the city’s elected leaders: alter a historic building to save it or let it slowly succumb to the elements.

“Buildings evolve or they become obsolete,” said land-use attorney Duncan Blair, a member of the church who represented the parish during the public hearing. “The goal with this renovation was to take a minimalist approach.”

But several members of the Old Town Civic Association disagreed, presenting letters of opposition from prestigious organizations such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Benjamin Henry Latrobe Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians. Led by Old Town Civic Association President Townsend Van Fleet, the objectors disagreed with the Old Town Board of Architectural Review’s approval for a permit for demolition and encapsulation.

“We urge further consideration of design alternatives that achieve the applicant’s goals but that are not physically attached to the historic buildings, do not require partial demolition of historic fabric, and do no have a visual impact on the historic church or its environs,” wrote Robert Nieweg, director of the Southern Field Office for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

In the end, members of the City Council voted unanimously to approve the church’s plans to install the glass ceiling over an area St. Paul’s parishioners call a “garth” — an unused space between the historic north wall of the sanctuary and the south wall of a 1955 building to the north. Church officials say that enclosing the space under glass will allow for a ramp to provide handicapped accessibility into the sanctuary and prevent further deterioration of the 190-year-old wall.

“Any option that didn’t include drilling into the wall would have left this an outdoor space, which would contribute to deterioration of the wall,” said Rector Oran Warder after the vote. “We wanted to go with several small holes rather than a few large holes.”

THE ARCHITECTURAL importance of the church rests with the legacy of Latrobe, who is considered the first prominent architect in the United States. He designed many of Washington’s gems, including Statuary Hall, the White House porticoes ad St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square. St. Paul’s Church is the only example of Latrobe’s architecture that is still standing in the commonwealth of Virginia — a distinction that makes the church a valuable early 19th-century example of his work. Latrobe constructed St. Paul’s in 1817 and 1818.

A recent renovation of Latrobe’s design for the first Catholic cathedral to be built in the United States known as the Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary has prompted a revival of interest in the architect, whose designs influenced generations of architects.

“For the cathedral, Latrobe offered Archbishop John Carroll two potential designs, one Classical and one Gothic,” wrote Karin Alexis, president of the Latrobe Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians, in a letter opposing the holes. “Carroll chose the Classical design, making St. Paul’s Church Latrobe’s only Gothic Revival church.”

AT LEAST 100 members of the church sat in the City Hall chamber, an adjoining room and a spillover conference room down the hall where the discussion could be viewed on a closed-circuit television. They left the speeches to their attorney, although church members did stand in unison at one point.

“All things being equal, I would much prefer that were not going this route,” said Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald. “But I don’t know how to bridge the gap between the two positions.”

Warder, who has been the church’s rector since 1999, said he understood the concerns of those who opposed drilling the holes in the wall. Yet he said that the dilemma of historic preservation offered two unappealing choices: permanently deface the wall with 22 structure anchors or let the elements slowly destroy it.

“I’m convinced in my heart that this will help us fulfill the mission of the church,” said Warder. “And it will also help us preserve this treasure that we all love.”

As a condition to the approval, City Council stipulated that the church agree to “a formal and legally binding easement or covenant to the satisfaction of the City Attorney that would require any alterations to the north wall of the Latrobe sanctuary, the south wall of Norton Hall, and the east and west walls of the connector elements, to be reviewed and approved by the Board, once the garth area is enclosed.”

Councilwoman Del Pepper and Councilman Rob Krupicka expressed an interest in installing a plaque in the church documenting this agreement. Although Blair agreed that the church could have a plaque, he said that parishioners wouldn’t want to install it on the wall.

“We wouldn’t want to drill any more holes in it,” Blair said, prompting laughter and applause from the St. Paul’s parishioners in the audience.