Neighbors Rally to Save Historic Church Windows – Historic Preservation Runs Up Against Religious Freedom
by Larry Janezich
Last October, when the World Mission Society Church of God bought the historic Epworth Episcopal Church South, located at 700 A Street NE, it was reasonable to assume the transition from one place of worship to another would be routine. That notion ended earlier this spring when neighbors noticed that several of the building’s stained glass windows had been removed, despite the historic nature of the those windows, and apparently without first consulting ANC6C or the Historic Preservation Office (HPO).
Complaints to the HPO resulted in an investigation that confirmed that this was indeed the case, and the office ordered the new owners to restore the windows to their original locations.
The owners complied but, according to HPO, several panes of stained glass were broken in the process and one of the largest was re-installed precariously without its wooden frame.
Built in 1895 and dedicated in 1896, Epworth Episcopal Church originally had stained glass windows featuring simple floral designs. The church suffered extensive damage in a 1919 fire, and apparently many of the current windows date to a 1921 restoration.
The new owners of the church, the World Mission Society Church of God, have filed an application with the HPO to remove the windows and replace them with clear glass – according to the HPO staff report – out of “concerns related to freedom of religion, lead safety, and energy efficiency.”
The HPO staff report recommends the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) advise the Mayor’s Agent – who will decide the issue if an adverse HPRB decision is appealed – that the application “for replacement of the existing stained glass windows with clear glass is not consistent with the purposes of the preservation law or with the window standards included in the preservation regulations.” ANC6C and the Capitol Hill Restoration Society have likewise put their opposition on the record.
Even if the Mayor’s Agent were to agree with a denial by HPRB of the permit, the new owners could appeal to the federal courts, who would decide if the First Amendment should yield to historic preservation law. The fact that the World Society has hired a lawyer for the opening stages of the permit process indicates that they are prepared to do take their case to other venues.
Wikipedia notes that the World Mission Society Church of God was founded by Ahn Sahng-hong in 1964 and maintains its headquarters in Korea. The church claims 1.45 million members worldwide and has come under criticism for deviating from mainstream Christian beliefs. It is active in many volunteer services and welfare activities throughout the world.
HPRB has put the case on its agenda for its meeting on Thursday, March 22, at 441 4th Street, NW, Room 220 South. The meeting starts at 9:00am.