In from the cold: St. Thomas’, Dupont Circle rebuilds

[Washington Window] Sometimes, on a sunny day, the Rev. Nancy Lee Jose will step outside the St. Thomas’ parish office and find an elderly widow standing on the spot where the church’s altar used to be, showing her children or grandchildren the place where she took her marriage vows.

The Dupont Circle church burned to the ground 40 years ago. All that remains of the former gray stone Gothic structure, where president Franklin Delano Roosevelt once served as vestryman and warden, is the raised dais where the high altar once stood and the wall behind it.

But even these remains, which date from 1893, are beginning to crumble.

“Every time I walk by and it’s raining or bad weather, it feels like there’s a living, breathing entity outside that’s not being taken care of,” Jose says.

“It’s really kind of now or never for those ruins,” adds architect Matthew Jarvis of Auraform, Alexandria, explaining they are deteriorating rapidly and must either be preserved, transplanted – or eventually demolished. “Things as they are will not last.”

Plans are now under way to bring the ruins of the former church under the roof of the future one.

St. Thomas’ planted the seed for rebuilding five years ago, when it took part in a year-long church growth program – To Grow Or Not To Grow – along with five other parishes in the diocese. The group studied Alice Mann’s book, Raising the Roof, and examined the issues surrounding church growth – including whether the parish truly wanted or was ready for it.

“We told our story and brought what we learned back to the parish,” Jose says. A series of monthly luncheons followed, during which parishioners grappled with these issues.

It seemed that the time to rebuild was finally right.

After the 1970 arson, the footprint of the original church was made into a garden, and members have been meeting in the parish hall for worship (and all other activities) ever since. But with a recent spike in membership – in the last five years, it has almost doubled – this space has grown increasingly cramped.

“Every time we try to be the church we are, we run into the physical plan of our building,” says senior warden John Johnson.

“We have no space that’s not being doubled up for everything,” Jose adds. “When we found ourselves crowded, we then began to ask ourselves: What do we want to do about this?”

A discernment committee of about 25 parishioners met to discuss the issue, and returned with a plan for rebuilding. Slowly, the project began to take shape. The design was proposed and revised, the Episcopal Church Foundation evaluated both the parish’s passion for the project and its fundraising potential, and the church launched a capital campaign to raise $5.2 million. The parish has now secured the necessary zoning permits and approval from the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board.

“We’re through the major things you have to go through in a city to get things built,” Jarvis says. “So it’s really an exciting time in the process for everybody.”

Jarvis has worked closely with the six-member Building Committee throughout the process, Johnson says, praising his “lack of ego in listening to more than 100 parishioners wonder about every nook and cranny that is in that building – and he’s done it with inestimable grace.”

“Our Building Committee is definitely a diverse group and it was designed that way,” says St. Thomas’ junior warden Matt Cloninger, who chairs the committee. “So you have different voices at the table and well-balanced representation from the parish.”

“That’s a huge commitment and also an indicator of faithful stewardship,” Jose says, noting that the committee has met every two weeks for the past two and a half years.

“It hasn’t been Pollyanna pie-in-the-sky,” she says, noting that while the project is ambitious, these meetings have raised all sorts of questions and concerns that needed to be addressed in order for all the pieces to move forward. “It has been exhilarating and challenging. But at every step along the way, it’s been ‘yes’ to the next question.”

The result, if all goes to plan, will be a 7,700 square foot church that will seat more than 250 people. (Fire regulations limit the occupancy of the current worship space to 156). Entrances on bustling 18th Street and a glass sanctuary wall opening onto quieter Church Street will make the building more accessible and welcoming to both parishioners and passersby.

A tent-like zinc roof will slope down from the pinnacle – the remaining wall of old St. Thomas’ – to the main entrance on 18th Street. Triangular skylights representing the 12 apostles will fill the nave with natural light during the day and serve as a kind of signal fire at night.

And finally, the ruins of the original church will be brought in from the cold.

“The first decision that was made was to enclose the ruins of the original sanctuary,” Jose says. “All the design flows out from there.”

“The ruins will be used as a side chapel,” Jarvis says. “There’s something nice about returning them to their purpose.”

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First appeared in Washington Window, Vol. 80 No. 1, January/February 2011 as

In from the cold

St. Thomas’ melds its once and future church