Housing Complex

Broken Windows Theory

World Mission Society Church of God Vs. D.C. Historic Preservation Laws

When Unity of Washington outgrew its Romanesque Revival building on Capitol Hill, it wasn’t easy to sell. D.C. doesn’t have much of a market for used churches; many congregations have followed their worshippers to the suburbs over the years. The 107-year-old church at 7th and A streets NE had good bones and a graceful presence. But keeping it functional as a church would take hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovations, and turning it into condos would cost even more.

So when Unity decided to sell its building, the property sat on the market for a decade, until last November. It turned out the old church was exactly what World Mission Society Church of God was looking for. The 56-year-old Korean Christian denomination has barnstormed the mid-Atlantic in recent years, proselytizing aggressively. It says it has outposts in almost every major city in the world, but hadn’t yet landed in D.C. Unity’s old building was ideally located near the centers of the nation’s power.

“It was a great situation to be close to the agencies, people in government,” explains Jorge Correa, World Mission’s overseer. “They need to know about the truth also.”

So the group bought the building for $1.25 million. Wanting to start services quickly, they began renovating, leaving most of the historic elements the same, save one: the ornate stained glass windows that light the sanctuary. No World Mission Society Church of God building has stained glass windows, because the church won’t hold services in the presence of imagery shaped by light, which it says is rooted in sun worship.

Trying to take those windows out, however, wasn’t easy. A neighborhood group that had used the building for meetings quickly noticed when two panels in one of the large rosette windows disappeared, and notified D.C.’s Historic Preservation Office, which visited and ordered World Mission to stop work immediately.

Now, the case is raising a fundamental question of the sort usually mulled by the church’s neighbors at the Supreme Court: Does the First Amendment, combined with property rights, trump historic preservation? The answer is probably no—which means the Church of God will need to try again for Capitol Hill.

* * *

World Mission Society Church of God Vs. D.C. Historic Preservation LawsIt’s not uncommon for religious groups,which occupy some of the city’s most historic real estate, to run into preservationist walls. In the most notable recent case, the Third Church of Christ Scientist fought for years to raze its Brutalist building at 16th and Eye streets NW because it cost too much to run as a church. In 2010, they settled out of Superior Court, allowing the building to be torn down. In another pending case, the Third Street Church of God on New Jersey Avenue NW applied to raze three decaying row houses, saying it never had the money to rehabilitate them and wanted a parking lot there instead.

The rationale in those cases was economic hardship: The properties were simply too expensive to maintain.

When World Mission went before the Historic Preservation Review Board to seek permission to take out the windows it had already removed and finish the job, the board said it couldn’t consider the First Amendment or the financial situation in its ruling. So the church tried other arguments: That the building wasn’t that historic, that the windows weren’t original, that replacing them with clear glass wouldn’t be that bad. The nine-member board unanimously rejected their request, expressing indignation at the church.

“You need to be aware that every neighbor is going to be watching,” said review board member Bob Sonderman, who is a warden at a church nearby. “I’m sorry that you purchased a building that maybe you are not going to be able to adapt to the needs that you desire, but the facts are that you did, and perhaps it was a major mistake.”

The church did bring the First Amendment up in appealing the board’s ruling last Friday before the Mayor’s Agent, Peter Byrne, the next level of authority for preservation cases. More of the story came out: Church officials had been looking for two years for a suitable building in their price range. They understood they were buying in a historic district, but say their realtor, Marilyn Cherry of Washington Fine Properties, led them to understand that the building itself wasn’t protected (which, on the witness stand, Cherry denied).

World Mission had renovated other historic properties in London and Christchurch, New Zealand, so local officials didn’t think there would be any problem here. “In the United States, even the money says, ‘In God We Trust,’” Correa told Byrne. “So we figured we could come to an agreement that we could worship the way we wanted.”

At the heart of the case is a 2000 law that grants religious organizations flexibility to challenge land use regulations. Because the church couldn’t use the building without finishing the renovations, World Mission argued that denial of the permit had hurt its fundraising, imposing a “substantial burden.” Letting it replace the windows and hold its twice-weekly services and Bible study every night was “necessary in the public interest.”

“This is the only church that testifies the why, the when, the how, is in the Bible, as it must be,” said August Kruesi, a congregant who sat quietly through most of the hearing with a Bible open in front of him, a pleading look on his face. An aerospace engineer, he says he’s personally donated $200,000 towards the renovation of the church. “These are such important prophecies. This is the only place you will ever hear this, and the only place in the District where people can come and learn.”

Even churches, however, have to follow basic rules of buying real estate, like actually checking a place out before signing a contract. Since historic preservation rules were in place before World Mission Society bought the property, and there were a number of buildings in the area that it could have bought instead, it’s not exactly clear that requiring the preservation of the windows infringes on its rights.

If Byrne rules against the church, as he seemed inclined to do, it will have to ask top brass in Korea for marching orders, Correa says. World Mission might have a chance appealing in court, but that could potentially delay the church’s entry into Washington for years, and meanwhile, it’s out $300,000 in renovations. The kitchen, bathrooms, and fellowship area downstairs are being completely refurbished, and the sanctuary’s been redone with bamboo floors and recessed overhead lighting (None of which required historic approval.) “I really don’t know what to say,” Correa sighs.

Even if it does manage to somehow stay in the building, the window tiff hasn’t gotten World Mission’s local evangelizing off to a good start. Still, its members are the ones feeling persecuted by stickler neighbors. “The last thing we want to do is make the neighborhood upset,” Correa says. “But we thought from the beginning we were being mistreated.”

World Mission Society Church of God Vs. D.C. Historic Preservation Laws

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

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  • Sally

    The comparisons to the Brutalist building church and the New Jersey Avenue church are totally irrelevant. Those were pure real estate issues. Here, the church is arguing that its religious practices are being violated by allowing the stained glass windows to remain due to the historic preservation law. That's a completely different issue than the other two cited situations. I hope the church appeals to federal court.

  • grumpy

    I thought that windows were a pretty standard historic element that the Church should have realized would need to be preserved (or have to petition for special permission to remove). Wouldn't the church have received information on historic preservation guidelines when they filed for the permits they needed to begin their renovations?

    I'm not familiar with the building in question but couldn't they cover the colored portions of glass with something opaque on the interior of the building while leaving them intact and viewable from the exterior? Would that satisfy both sides?

  • X

    How convenient that the HPO office can just say "we're not going to consider first amendment issues".

    2nd, its not clear what amount of due diligence the church should have done before moving in. And should the responsibility to find out whats protected be entirely on the consumer?

  • Hillman

    It's no secret that Capitol Hill is an historic district.

    Even the tiniest bit of research would have shown that this building is historically protected.

    I viewed this property, with an agent. The Washington Fine Properties folks were there also.

    They absolutely told me the building was subject to historic protection.

    They specifically mentioned the windows.

    But then they also said they thought you'd be able to get a curb cut and be able to use the basement for parking, making a garage entry (this property has no parking). And there's absolutely no way that will ever happen.

    Having said all that, the windows likely are not 'original'.

    They are of poor quality, and up close you can really tell that.

    If these chaps get a break because they are a church then I want to for the Church Named After My Dog, and demand that I get to ignore historic guidelines also.

    Seriously. Why should one person's beliefs get them out of guidelines the rest of us have to follow?

  • Hillman

    Have to say also I don't really understand the 'wont worship in imagery shaped by light' thing.

    By definition even clear glass is going to cast shadows.

    Isn't that 'imagery shaped by light'?

  • Hillman

    My issue isn't with the church.

    If I thought I could get an exemption like that I would. By all means they should pursue their legal rights.

    I'm questioning the overall exemption itself, and where you draw the line.

    Also where do you draw the line on 'historic'? Is it the day the church was built? If so I doubt those windows are 'historic'?

    And could you in theory change those sortof substandard stained glass windows for a higher quality stained glass?

    If so, wouldn't that be a violation of 'historic'?

    Are we always stuck with a substandard product because it happens to be put in at a particular time that we are enamored of?

    I understand historic guidelines, but honestly, having been in this church, I can see why anyone would want to remove at least some of these stained glass windows.

    There's not a single 'regular' window in the entire main church (or even in the basement, if I remember right).

    The lack of natural light is weird, and after a while would sortof drive you crazy.

    And I believe Grace Church on the Hill was allowed to remove many of their stained glass windows when they went condo years ago.

    I suspect any person that used that church for any purpose other than church would at some point want to make at least a few regular windows.

  • original thoughts

    Even if it's a historic district, whats the big deal with taking out some windows??? Those windows are really historic??? Silly. Govt once again running amuck.
    Its not like they want to tear down the building, they want to replace some windows. Its their building, they should be able to do so. Replacing windows should not require permission from any govet bureaucrat. This is basic private property rights, which governements today simply have no respect for. This is govt running amuck. So sad, where do we draw the line? Who gets the say so? Some government bureaucrat?
    Especially since the windows are NOT ORIGINAL??? What are these bureaucrats playing at? How is somehting that's not original being considered historic to the building?

  • Andrew

    Why don't they just cover up the windows on the inside? Easy.

  • Hillman

    The considerably bigger issue with that building is the brick pointing outside.

    It hasn't been kept up in decades.

    My ballpark estimate would be $200,000, just for the brick pointing.

    I had a MUCH smaller portion done on the Hill recently. The project was delayed indefinitely as two different historic groups argued over the proper shade of off-white I was supposed to use for the mortar.

    You could put them side by side and maybe 1 in 100 people could tell a difference.

    And neither of these people had ever even been to my house to see what was there, and readily admitted they had no idea what the original color was.

    I'm all for reasonable historic standards (no vinyl siding, etc.), but at some point common sense has to win out.

  • JMF

    I attended the Mayor's Agent hearing last Friday, and have reviewed their filing documents.

    First, it is erroneous to state, as the article does (based on the church's assertion), that the church had been on the market for a decade--implying it was vacant. The Unity Church occupied and used the building continuously up until about 2 years ago. Previous attempts to sell the property had fallen through for a number of reasons -- high asking price, cost of renovation, lack of parking, and historic preservation considerations. Earlier potential purchasers checked it out, did their "due diligence" and found it economically infeasiable to redevelop.

    As to the question of covering the windows on the inside, the church insisted at the hearing that it is not the VISIBILITY of the stained glass windows, but the MERE PRESENCE of the windows that precludes their use of the building. So covering them over is not a solutation for them.

    As to the historic status of the building, the church is a contributing structure in a historic district by DC Preservation Law standards (anything built from 1791 to 1945 is presumptively historic. The church was built in 1895). The windows are probably original by my estimation--the floral motif in most of them is representative of late 19th century churches.
    I disagree that they are substandard, that sounds like an argument the church would make.

    Finally, yes, a purchaser of any real estate has a responsibility to do "due diligence" for himself (e.g. building inspections before purchase of a house.) The church was informed the property was in a historic district. They purchased the property without hiring an attorney, the church members who did the search were from Burke, Virginia (where their current church is located)and New Jersey, as were the realtors they consulted. Clueless springs to mind here.

    It is difficult fathom how they believe they were "mistreated" from the start. The church did not notify neighbors of anything they were doing, did much of the early renovation without benefit of permits at all, and when neighbors did enquire, were secretive and uninformative about it. There were no neighborhood community meetings, they did not appear before any of the ANCs, they did not provide the HPRB with a "concept plan" that might have alerted them to the challenges of renovation in a historic district. Neighbors had no chance of "mistreating" them, unless they view taking pictures of the property as "mistreatment."

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    It's not the First Amendment that is relevant here as much as the RLUIPA Act. I am a hardcore preservationist and I am not a lawyer, but I would argue that in this instance, even though I think the windows should be preserved, that the Church would win a challenge in federal court to the DC historic preservation laws on RLUIPA grounds.

    This is the kind of issue that I think the act is designed for. How the church specifically practices its religion, in this case no images.

    Too often churches argue that anything they do is covered by RLUIPA, such as their desires for more parking, is part of their religious mission, when it isn't.

  • Hillman


    Thank you for the detailed analysis.

    I'm not a church window expert, so I will bow to your wisdom on the 'originality' of the windows.

    What I can say is they don't look to be of high quality. Particularly once you are close up.

    Honestly, some of them are actually sortof ugly. Clunky, with no real design or interest.

    And I honestly don't see why if a church is repurposed why you have to maintain all the stained glass? It's still a gorgeous building even with regular windows.

    And what about a compromise? Keep some of the stained glass, but allow some regular windows.

    Believe me, having no natural light in a building is creepy after a while.

  • original thoughts

    Private property is private proerty. There should be no historic preservation laws at all. This group bought the building and should be allowed to do with it as they please (keeping with common sense: dont make an irrational arguemnet against this). I would even go as as far as to say they should have the right to demolish the church and build a new one in its place if they wanted. IT's THEIR buliding, they bought it. It's not the historic group's building, it not the government's building, it's theirs. If they want to change some windows, they should be allowed to do so. This isn't an enfringement on their relious freedom, this is an infringement on thier personal property rights.
    People in this country need to go back to the basics of freedom and understand all freedom stems from basic private property rights. When we lose our private property, we lose our freedom. This is another example of Big Government and pencil pushing bureaucrats making up silly regulations.

    I mean really! Don't change your windows, they're historic!

    Let me try another approach.
    This silly church. Why did you think you would be allowed to change the windows? What in the world gave you the idea that you would be able to change windows of your chruch building? Don't you know this is America? You must have lost your mind thinking that replacing windows was acceptable in this society. You didnt even hold communtiy meetings to let people know you were chaning your windows. How thoughtless of you. Those stained windows are a contributing part of this soceity (the murder capital of the world). Without those historic windows, the city would be empty feeling. Shame on you for trying to change the windows of your church.

    This is the dumbest thing i have ever heard of, and it only makes since that it's happening in the captial of the land of the Free lol.

  • Kevin

    OriginalThought, it doesn't sound like you're from around here. All residents of DC know about the historic preservation rules; they're why we even HAVE neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and Logan Circle. I mean, geez, even the Mexican Embassy figured it out, and the final product is one of my favorite buildings in the city.

    Historic Preservation exists mostly because the PEOPLE request it. Neighborhoods tend to like the way they look, and that becomes an important part of the community identity. Plase take your anti-government comments elsewhere.

    In regards to the church; the burden's on the buyer, right? I mean, it doesn't seem like there are any surprises here. I feel bad for their predicament, but claiming exception due to their nature of being a congregation sort of goes AGAINST the separation of church and state, doesn't it?

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/ Mr T in DC

    "I'm not familiar with the building in question but couldn't they cover the colored portions of glass with something opaque on the interior of the building while leaving them intact and viewable from the exterior? Would that satisfy both sides?"

    Also sounds like an obvious course of action to me!

  • original thoughts

    Kevin, How much did the neighborhood pay for the building?

    If the people of the neighborhood really liked the way it looked, why did they let it stay vacant for two years? Why did they not care enough about it to purchase it? How much did the neighborhood pay to upkeep the building? So what if the neighborhood likes it, they did not purchase the building. It's not their property.

    It seems to me Kevin, that you are the one not from around here. You have no basic understanding, or respect, for private property, the basic principle and foundation of this country. I am very aware of the absudity that these preservation groups bring about.

    You sole reason for historic preservation is because the PEOPLE requested it... Again i ask how much did those people pay, request,for the building? If they didnt pay, request, for the building, they should have no say in anything for the building, as it is not their property. This chruch gruop also requested it, and they paid for it with their own money. Therefore it is their proeperty.

    This church group is not requesting to demolish the building, they wnat to replace windows...

  • crin

    OT, you're howling at the moon and upturning decades of Supreme Court precedent on the validity of historic preservation, zoning and takings. You should double down and argue against eminent domain and the interstate commerce clause.

  • original thoughts

    This is about windows of a building owned by a private entity. Windows should not fall under the category of historic preservation. This is absurd, and it highlights that when you give govt bureaucrats an inch, they want a mile.

    I understand that historic preservation will never go away, but where do we draw the line as citizens? How much contol will you allow govt bureaucrats to have over your personal property?

    If someone can clearly explian to me why windows are historic, then lets have that conversation.

  • JMF

    Let me reiterate, as some folks didn't seem to read my original response.

    The church turned down any option of covering up the windows from the inside (it had been suggested), because they assert that the mere presence of the windows (covered or not)precluded them from using the space. By the same token, the compromise of a partial removal, removing some and leaving others, would be out of the question.

    As for having no natural light being creepy, that certaintly did not keep numerous churches, cathedrals, etc, from installing them and conducting their services with them. I venture to suggest that they found the stained glass windows beautiful and inspirational, contributing to their worship in a manner that clear glass windows would not.

  • Hillman


    Stained glass is fine once a week.

    But I dare you to try living in a space with no natural light for even a couple months.

    Then come back and tell me how much you like it.

  • Battelmen

    i concur with Hillman. On top of that let's say you bought a new building but old raggedy windows are not energy efficient, and makes whole indoor area dark.
    Would you change windows? Of course you would. Sound really absurd. Even whatever was inside the church (for example if there was Picasso's paint happens to be in ceiling should automatically goes to new owner. Overall they just trying to replace their own building windows. BIG DEAL.

  • George A. Gibson

    A practical solution for eliminating the "imagery shaped by light" problem caused by the stained glass window in the World Mission Society Church (1905 Romanesque Revival Church at 7th & A Streets, NE) is to install a solid panel on the interior of the window that prevents "sun" or "day" light from from entering the church. This would not affect the exterior "historic" appearance of the building. Please inform the DC historical review board that changing the window panes to leaded colored glass without images does not affect the historical aspect of the building.

    However, the historical aspect of the church window is not really the problem the neighbors have with the church. Capitol Hill Residents have a history of opposing "anything or anyone they consider foreign to them"

  • original thoughts

    If anyone bothers to look up Romanesque Revival style bulidings, you will not find anywhere where "stained" windows are part of the original style of the building. A unique feature of these styles of buildings is the shape of the windows, not the stained imagery on the windows.

    The church is not trying to change the style of the building, or the windows, rather they are maintaing the style of the building and windows. They are simply using clear windows which are used in many styles of Romanesque Revival builings.

    Based on the article, the church does not object to the windows, but the stainded imagery on the windows. Something about images they do not like. They are replacing the old (creepy and ugly) windows with new windows. They are replacing them for religous and econmic reasons, but they are not changing the style or uniqueness of the building structure.

    Putting in clear windows is not changing the historic appearance of the church since the historic value is about the shape of the windows in this style of building, not the color. They are maintaining the shape of the windows, therefore they are maintaiing the historic apperacnce.

  • http://na.com Anonymous

    The church has a lovely web site of "imagery shaped by light"

  • http://na.com Anonymous

    Note: It's more important to "form a more perfect Union" than it is to quibble about technical details of whose logic (s).

    Being a good person is the important thing.

    Who can think of exceptions and inconsistencies on both sides all day...

    The important thing is to find the requested remedies [[thn\]] which who all can join and move us closer to the one, 100% independence, the one self sufficiency, the one God, who or why does not need any - including not needing to not need and is there fore ready and willing to create, sustain, welcome, make more perfect, return and invite any.

  • General Pastor

    Yes, it should rely on the consumer... but that is especially and undoubtedly true for this particular organization. They believe in a Korean woman named Zahn Gil Jah as God Almighty, and a man named Ahnsahnhong (died in 1985) is "God the Father". My point? If this woman is really God here in the flesh and leading this "church" as the one true church, she might have made a well placed phone call to her faithful followers about NOT signing this contract. But they didn't, because (of course), she is not really god. Either way, they are fully responsible.

  • General Pastor

    If you want to buy a house, and the contract says "H.O.A." then you can't bitch about the 200 extra dollars a month for the fees. You can't bitch about the fact that you cannot landscape your "personal property" to your desired style. You cannot change your shutter colors or even your window styles, and you had better keep the grass cut... but I don't see anyone bitching since THIS WAS IN THE CONTRACT!!! As a church that believes in "covenants" or "contracts" (like Passover), you would expect them to live up to the contract they signed. I guess not though.. I have no sympathy for these people.

  • General Pastor

    You seem to have no respect for contracts. This church "as I suspect you know" is all about "covenants" and since they signed it, time to live up to what it means. Otherwise, I can take Passover and then Christmas, then complain as to why I cannot get into heaven.... guess I should have taken the time to understand that contract, huh?