The Third Church complex was designated by the Washington DC Historic Preservation Office as a Historic Landmark on December 6, 2007. The site is also part of the Sixteenth Street Historic District that was designated by Washington DC on March 9, 1977 and listed on the National Registry on Aug 25, 1978. The District was expanded on July 18, 2007 by DC and July 11, 2007 by the National Registry.
The Third Church complex was commissioned as part of a larger building campaign started in 1966 by Christian Science Church to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the Church's founding. The construction campaign also included a major administrative center built in the Back Bay area of Boston near the original 1894 First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston, Massachusetts, usually referred to as the "Mother Church." Araldo A. Cossutta of I.M. Pei & Partners also designed the Boston project.
The Mother Church originally planned to build only new offices for the Committee and the Christian Science Monitor, the journalistic branch of the organization. This coincided with the Third Church of Christ, Scientist's search for a new location and they arranged to be co-located on the northwest corner of 16th street and I street.
During the planning for the Washington, D.C. complex, the church considered and eventually rejected designs from an architect who was a member of the congregation. The church leaders were undecided on the decision to pursue a modern or traditional design and invited I.M. Pei & Partners to propose a plan. Araldo A. Cossutta of I.M. Pei & Partners proposed a design similar to the finally realized form of the complex but the church rejected it as too expensive. After considering many other architects, they eventually awarded the commission to I.M. Pei & Partners with Cossutta as the lead architect. The buildings were preliminarily planned to be clad in limestone but this material was changed to entirely cast-in-place concrete to limit construction costs. This was a fortuitous decision as Cossutta had previously in his career displayed great aptitude in designing for this medium.
The Third Church complex is composed of two buildings connected by a central triangular grass plaza. The two buildings--the five-story octagonal Third Church and the eight-story L-shaped Monitor Building--are linked visually through materials, design, construction method and orientation on the site, giving the complex a unified aesthetic.
Both buildings are built in the Brutalist style, characterized by their use of roughly cast-in-place concrete. On the exterior of the Third Church complex, the pattern of the form work is visible and the seams of the casting joints are used to emphasize the complex's horizontality, further highlighted by the long rows of horizontal windows on the Monitor Building. The concrete has a warm earthy tone, achieved through the addition of a red sandstone aggregate, that allows the buildings to harmonize with the limestone cladding of the neighboring buildings.
The interior openness allowed by the cast-in-place concrete construction system is fully exploited by Cossutta, who banishes all columns and interior supports from the layout, allowing all the load to be borne exclusively by the exterior walls. The horizontally alternating bands of substantial cast concrete and comparatively weightless glazing on the facade of the Monitor Building creates a visual tension that gracefully illustrates the lack of interior columns. The interior ceiling of both buildings were cast in a ridged waffle pattern that creates a coffered effect on the ceiling of the main auditorium. The design emphasizes the play of light and shadow created by the indirect sunlight that streams into the interior though two skylights. In the Monitor Building, this series of grids accentuate the open floor plan.
The entrances to both buildings are located on the plaza, orienting them with one another and creating an inward-reflecting unity. The plaza was designed around several existing mature trees on the site that serve to naturally enclose the open space while providing a landscaping technique that I.M. Pei viewed as integral to a livable space. The herringbone red brick paving in the plaza continues into the buildings' lobbies, joining in the interior and exterior.
The Third Church is a free standing building situated on the south side of the lot with a vast, unadorned wall facing toward both I Street and Sixteenth Street. Despite its exterior octagonal shape, the interior a large cube-shaped auditorium with four projecting bays that give the structure its distinctive shape. An innovative horizontal sculptural "bell tower," extends outward from the east facade towards 16th Street.
1968 - 1971
The site is located two blocks from the White House on Sixteenth Street, one of the most important avenues in Washington DC. The construction of the Third Church complex illustrates the transformation of the Sixteenth Street corridor between the 1920s and the 1970s from a residential neighborhood to an institutional and commercial thoroughfare.
The site of the current Third Church complex had been held since 1947 by Church Realty Trust, a branch of the Mother Church. The former Gray-Payne residence previously occupied the site and was used as a reading room for all congregations of The Christian Science churches in Washington, D.C.
In an article from the October 1966 issue of Progressive Architecture, Araldo Cossutta describes the evolution of his use of concrete during his time with I.M. Pei and partners from a pre-cast skin on a concrete structure to a cast-in-place load-bearing construction. When designing the Denver Hotel that was completed in 1960, Cassutta chose to build in concrete rather than the popular steel and glass style propagated by 860 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, the Lever House and Pei's Mile High Center in order to exploit the clear air and bright sun light of his location in Denver, Colorado. Rejecting the transparency of glass, he sought to capture the Denver sun's ability to "brilliantly delineate light from shadow and transform its tracery into architecture." Despite their tremendous compressive strength, the nature of pre-cast modules required the use of a concrete frame due to their inability to resist lateral loads without expensive construction techniques. He began to seek a low cost material and method of construction that would combine both interior stability and exterior skin, "structure and architecture." Cossutta found his answer in cast-in-place concrete. Cossutta and his colleagues at I.M. Pei & Partners began to experiment with cast-in-place concrete to fully understand the material and explore effective techniques for its use. They systematically eliminated superfluous architectural elements in a series of cast-in-place concrete buildings over several years, leading to the Christian Science Church Center in Boston and the Third Church of Christ complex in Washington D.C., among other notable buildings. In the Third Church of Christ complex, Cossutta creates solid architectural mass in cast-in-place concrete that is defined by the proportions between the church, office and grass plaza and illuminated by the play of light and shadow.
The Third Church complex has a significant relationship to the growth of the Christian Science Church in Washington, D.C. The first two churches established by Christian Science were located in residential neighborhoods. The Third Church was founded as a downtown-based congregation in 1918. Their commitment to an urban location combined with a rapidly expanding congregation created difficulties in finding suitable spaces that they could afford. After renting space in two other locations in downtown Washington, the church purchased a former Universalist church at the corner of 13th and L streets in 1926. The interior of the church was remodeled by removing the stained glass to allow more light into the sanctuary and rebuilding the main auditorium to hold 900 people with 200 more in the Sunday School. By 1967, the church was looking for a new location but its continued commitment to a downtown location created the same financial difficulties it had earlier in the century. This dedication was especially rare in the 1950s and 1960s when many other churches were relocating from downtown Washington D.C. to escape the social and economic problems so prevalent in mid-twentieth-century cities.
Their search coincided with the Mother Church's plan to construct a new office building for the Committee and the Christian Science Monitor as part of the centennial celebration of the founding of the Christian Science faith. The Third Church of Christ arranged with the Mother Church to include their new sanctuary in the development of the site located at the corner of Sixteenth Street and I Street. This inclusion coincided with the Mother Church's other aspirations as well; in the 1960s, the Christian Science Monitor maintained a nationally respected reputation and by including a house of worship and the Monitor's Washington DC office within the same complex, Christian Science created a visual expression of the close alignment between the religious organization and their journalistic publication.
The inclusion of a worship space within an administrative complex symbolically illustrates the institutional strength of the congregation and religious organization. Additionally, by employing a prominent architectural style and architectural firm, the Third Church complex was an emblematic representation of Christian Science's national presence on a prominent lot located only two blocks from the White House.
Despite the destruction seen on Fourteenth Street during the devastating 1968 riots following Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, two blocks away from the planned site, Christian Science continued with the construction of the complex, illustrating the depth of their conviction that they gain a significant downtown landmark.
The Third Church complex embodies many of the theological beliefs of Christian Science within its aesthetic language. Christian Science has its roots in Congregationalism or a communal form of worship. The importance of gathering in a shared space is reflected in the centralized layout of the Third Church. Cossutta originally intended to use a circular exterior that would more fully realize this communal expression but substituted an octagonal form to allow the building to harmonize with the surrounding rectilinear buildings. Christian Science also emphasizes an inward reflection and spirituality that is reflected in the windowless auditorium and insular plaza. Additionally, Christian Science is strongly tied to the written word. This is echoed in the use of text as the only form of ornamentation on the interior and, aside from the cantilevered bell tower, on the exterior. In a letter to the Historic Preservation Review Board in 2007, Araldo Cossutta described his intentions for the design of the Third Church complex: "My aim was to bring out the purity of forms by the precision of well proportioned elements of the design, producing crisp play of light and shadow, all as part of a serene and elegant urban setting." He rejected the intrinsic implication that the term "Brutalist" implied a brutal or aggressive aesthetic. Instead, he sees the form as a development of Le Corbusier's notion of "beton brut," meaning "concrete, unaltered," a material that allowed a creative freedom of new and poetic architectural forms. The Third Church complex shows many similarities to Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois. Both share a monumentality, use of cast concrete on both the interior and exterior, diffuse lighting provided by skylights, and an insular and tranquil congregational space. Cossutta's design of the Third Church of Christ is reminiscent of the Battistero di San Giovanni, or the Florence Baptistery located in the Piazza del Duomo. They not only share a similar shape but are also correspondingly proportionally balanced by a large structure related to them across an open plaza: the Duomo cathedral in the case of the baptistery and the Monitor Building in the case of the Third Church of Christ.
At its time of construction, the Third Church complex was heralded as a significant and unique example of modern architecture in Washington DC. In 1971, the design won the "Award for Excellence in Architecture" from the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade. Not all evaluations of the building have been laudatory, however. The architecture critic for the Washington Post, Wolf von Eckardt, was particularly critical, condemning the exterior treatments and orientation of the buildings on the site as "arrogantly detached." Indeed, the plaza never achieved its intended purpose as a social gathering space for the church members. Von Eckardt did admit some appreciation for the use of light in the interior of the church, admitting that the main auditorium was "perhaps even quite beautiful."
Members of the Third Church's congregation have repeatedly made statements to the press lamenting the architectural style of the building. Many believe that the complex does not reflect their religious beliefs or the spirit of Christian Science. J. Darrow Kirkpatrick, a lay leader of the church, stated that, "Ours is not an inward-looking, secretive religion...This building does not represent our theology or our beliefs." The fact that they accepted the plan that Araldo Cossutta proposed could arise from three reasons. The first was pressure from the Mother Church at the time to hire the same firm that they were employing for the Monitor building. The second was economic; the church could not afford to purchase their own property in the downtown area and were thus forced to submit to the pressures of the Mother Church. The original plans to clad the building in the more traditional material of limestone were also rejected due to funding. The third could have been the social situation in downtown Washington, D.C. at the time. As one long time congregation member, Julia Cuniberti, reflected, "We were committed to downtown, but people were fleeing. Members said, OK, if we want to be downtown we have to protect ourselves." A solid, fortress-like structure could have satisfied this reflex for self-preservation.
Over the subsequent forty years, however, the church design has proved to not be conducive to the congregation's uses. A major flaw in the design of the auditorium is the electric lighting placed in the coffered ceiling, four-stories above the floor. The congregation is forced to erect costly scaffolding to replace expired bulbs.
The Third Church complex, as described by the Historic Review Board of Washington, D.C., "stands as a uniquely distinguished example of ecclesiastical architecture, distinctly urban in character." It is a notable and innovative example of the Brutalist style, particularly the Brutalist style employed in a theological setting. The fact that it did not serve the uses of its congregation is extremely unfortunate and shows that some experimental architecture will fail.
BHANOO, Sindya N., "Chruch Sues to Undo Landmark Status," Washington Post, Washington, D.C., August 8, 2008 (January 31, 2011)
Committee of 100 on the Federal City, "Application for Historic Landmark: Third Church of Christ Scientist and Christian Science Monitor Building," Washington, D.C., November 9, 1991 (February 1, 2011)
COSSUTTA, Araldo, "From Precast Concrete to Integral Architecture," Progressive Architecture; October 1966: 196-207
COSSUTTA, Araldo, letter to Tersh Boasberg, Chair of Historic Preservation Review Board, New York, November 29, 2007 (February 1, 2011)
O'CONNELL, Jonathan, "Developers Are Proceeding With Plans to Demolish a Historic Church," Washington Post, Washington, D.C., November 22, 2010 (January 30, 2011)
STAFF, Historic Preservation Review Board, "Staff Report for Third Church of Christ, Scientist and the Christian Science Monitor Building," Washington, D.C., November 1, 2007 (February 1, 2011)
SYEED, Nafeesa, "City: Bunkerlike DC Church Can Be Demolished," The Guardian, London, May 16, 2009 (February 1, 2011)
VITULLO-MARTIN, Julia, "Congregation Fights for the Right to Raze Its Ugly Church," Wall Street Journal, New York, November 21, 2008 (February 2, 2011)
VON ECKARDT, Wolf, "New Church Design: Rude, Brutal, Military, Uncivilized," Washington Post; 28 November 1970