Trinity Episcopal Church, once one of the city's finest houses of worship

Trinity Episcopal Church once stood majestically on the northeast corner of 3rd and C Streets NW, an intersection now overwhelmed by the U.S. Labor Department’s sprawling Frances Perkins Building. When it was completed in 1851, Trinity was one of the most distinguished houses of worship in the city, and its congregation included civic leaders and other important Washingtonians who paid for the privilege of good seats in the church. Yet sweeping neighborhood changes would eventually spell the congregation’s doom. The elite neighborhood declined precipitously after the Civil War as wealthy congregants moved to newer residential communities farther to the northwest. Unable to sustain itself, the church was dissolved in 1922 and its beautiful building torn down in 1936—so that the land could be used for a parking lot.

Trinity Episcopal Church in 1862, as photographed by Matthew Brady (Source: Library of Congress).

Trinity was organized in 1828, after a group of influential Episcopalians met at City Hall and decided that an additional parish was needed between Christ Church on Capitol Hill and St. John’s on Lafayette Square. It has been said that the name Trinity was chosen for the new parish in part because it was the third Episcopal parish in Washington. The new congregation’s first building was completed three years later on Fifth Street NW, facing City Hall.

The Judiciary Square neighborhood in those days, also known as English Hill, was a mixture of scattered working-class frame dwellings to the north and east as well as elegant townhouses to the south and west. The neighborhood was dominated by the neoclassical City Hall building designed by George Hadfield, and built beginning in 1820 (see previous article). Francis Scott Key (1779–1843) moved to Judiciary Square from his house in Georgetown in 1830, after he was named district attorney for the city of Washington. He also served as the senior warden of Trinity Church. The church was well situated to serve congressmen, senators, judges, and other influential residents who chose to live near City Hall. John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun all worshipped at Trinity when they were in Washington. So did local officials, including many of the city’s early mayors—to the point that Trinity became known as the “church of the mayors.”

A photo of the original Trinity Church building on Fifth Street, taken in 1898, when the building was about to be torn down (Source: Library of Congress).
By the middle of the 19th century, a bigger building was needed for the burgeoning congregation. Many parishioners thought Trinity should serve, at least informally, as a national Episcopalian church and should be housed in a prestigious building. Perhaps, it was thought, the diocesan Bishop could be persuaded to move from Baltimore to Washington and designate Trinity as his pro-cathedral. That didn’t happen, but when the charismatic Rev. Clement Moore Butler (1810-1890) arrived as rector in 1847, he set himself to the challenge of building a suitable new house of worship.

At first, plans were simply to tear down and replace the church on Fifth Street. Fundraising was sluggish until wealthy banker and philanthropist William Wilson Corcoran (1798-1888) stepped in to help the congregation purchase a new lot for the church on the other side of City Hall at 3rd and C Streets NW. Corcoran was an enthusiastic supporter and patron of architect James Renwick Jr. (1818-1895), who in 1846 had won the competition for the design of the Smithsonian Institution (the Smithsonian Castle) on the Mall. Renwick had first prepared a design for the Smithsonian in a high Gothic Revival style, which had been rejected. That discarded design became the basis for the new Trinity Church. It seems likely that Corcoran was the one who suggested that Renwick’s discarded design should be reused.

James Renwick's rejected Gothic design for the Smithsonian Castle. Trinity Church is a somewhat simplified version of the central part of this building. (Source: Library of Congress).
The cornerstone was laid in April 1850, and work progressed briskly at first. The church was primarily made of red sandstone from Seneca, Maryland, as was the Smithsonian Castle, which was under construction at the same time. By the end of July, the nave was built and largely roofed, and work on the towers was supposed to begin. Storm damage to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which was used to transport the cut stone from Seneca to the city, delayed completion of the towers until the following March. That month, a grand auction was held for the pews in the new church, with wealthy congregants vying for the best seats. A combination of sales and rentals brought in more than $19,000, substantially covering the costs of the new building.

Like Renwick’s 1846 Grace Church in New York City, Trinity featured a wealth of Gothic detail, including elaborate tracery on the windows and many freestanding pinnacles topped with fleurs-de-lis on the front facade. The church's twin towers were capped with unusual openwork wooden beams bent into bell-like spires—an apparent attempt to economize on costs. The footprint of the church was roughly square; within it, the nave was laid out octagonally, corresponding to the great octagonal lantern on the roof, which provided natural lighting.

Renwick's original drawing of the church's north (side) elevation shows elaborate buttresses and finials that were never built. Instead, a large octagonal cupola (lantern) crowned the church's single-story central space (Source: Library of Congress).
While the Gothic Revival details were strikingly elegant, they were actually much restrained in comparison with the architect's original plans. The church’s unusual shape (which resulted from the central section of Renwick's proposed Smithsonian building being constructed as a freestanding structure) struck some observers as ungainly. One newspaper commentator observed that the church, with its flat roof and two smokestack-like towers, looked “like a stump-tailed steamboat.” At some point later in the 19th century, the wooden openwork spires were enclosed in shingled caps, topped with crosses, and the surrounding pinnacles were removed.

Detail of an 1852 view of Washington. The new Trinity Episcopal Church is on the right, above the Senate (north) wing of the Capitol (Source: Library of Congress click to enlarge).

At the time of the Civil War, Trinity and many other established Washington congregations were staunchly pro-Southern. This put the church’s rector, Rev. Butler, in an awkward position. On the one hand, as chaplain of the U.S. Senate, he had been close friends with John C. Calhoun (1798-1850) of South Carolina, who reportedly “on his deathbed ordered a silver cup to be made and presented to Dr. Butler as a memorial.” On the other hand, Butler was a northerner (born in New York) and a loyal government chaplain. Conflict became inevitable. Members of the Trinity congregation “gave him a hard time after hostilities broke out, on account of his eminent loyalty to the Union,” leading Butler to resign in 1861 and move to Philadelphia.

Trinity was one of several church buildings that the Army commandeered in 1862 to serve temporarily as a hospital for the war-wounded. In such cases, the army would lay wooden planks across the tops of the pews to create a platform for hospital cots. The pews at Trinity bore the marks of nails and screws from this ten-month military service for decades to come. President Lincoln may have visited convalescent soldiers at Trinity during this time.

After the war, several renovations and expansions were undertaken. Notable was the construction in 1894 of a spacious parish hall, which nearly filled the rest of the square. Designed by local architect William J. Palmer (1863-1925), who would subsequently design the Ebenezer United Methodist Church on Capitol Hill (see previous article), the new hall allowed the Sunday School to move out of the basement of the church and also added a spacious dining hall. When the new project was announced in 1893, The Evening Star remarked that “an innovation in such structures will be a kitchen, a thing whose absence is nearly always missed at church suppers, and which will be a joy unspeakable to the ladies.” Then, in 1898, a major renovation of the church’s interior was completed, including a new marble altar, new brass and marble pulpit, and new carpeting and seat cushions for all the pews.

The outward prosperity demonstrated by the parish hall and interior renovations masked an underlying decline at Trinity parish. As early as 1891, an article in the Star noted that the church was losing its footing: “Trinity Church is a power in the city as an engine of good works, but owing to the growth of the city westward has lost somewhat of the stability and strength of its congregation which formerly characterized it.” By 1903, the church was begging for dismissal of the back taxes it owed on its rectory: “This church has lost heavily in wealth by the constant removal of parishioners to the northwest, where they have become attached to other parishes, and the income of this parish thereby being terribly impaired. The people whom we serve are now of a much poorer class than those to whom we ministered some years ago.”

Trinity Church circa 1920, near the end of its life. Note the enclosed towers. (Source: Library of Congress).
Trinity’s role as a charitable mission grew during World War I, when it provided both spiritual and physical support to servicemen passing through the capital. In 1922, after a three-year trial period, the Washington diocese of the Episcopal Church took full control of Trinity from its vestry, effectively dissolving the old parish. From this point on, the church served exclusively as a diocesan mission and downtown outreach center, providing a range of services to disadvantaged members of the community. The old parish hall, now called the Trinity Community House, proved particularly useful, featuring a gymnasium and recreation hall, dining hall, emergency room, five large clubrooms, library, and even a “mental hygiene clinic room.”

A postcard view of Trinity Church (author's collection).
In 1928, the church held a special service and banquet, attended by Bishop James Freeman, to celebrate its 100th anniversary. It would be one of the last such events to take place in the venerable old building. In 1936, faced with ever increasing debts, the diocese agreed to raze the church buildings and lease the land to Auto City Parking Company, which would pay $43,000 in rent to use the property as a parking lot for ten years.

This advertisement appeared in The Evening Star on September 22, 1936.
An article in The Washington Post noted that some former parishioners were very upset about the destruction of the church, calling it “sacrilege, heartless and commercial.” With no historic preservation laws on the books, however, there was little they could do. Demolition proceeded, and, as was customary at the time, the wrecking contractor sold off a variety of salvaged structural elements, including stained glass windows, pews, Seneca sandstone blocks, and Peach Bottom roof slates. Some items went to other local churches, including the old pews and the communion rail, which were installed in the St. Patrick’s Chapel on Foxhall Road (since demolished). Other items, including the church’s cornerstone, were sold to a family in Camp Springs, Maryland, where they were said to be used to build a house.

The intersection of 3rd and C Streets NW as it appears today. Trinity Church was on the far corner. The space is so overwhelmed by the Department of Labor building that the church's location is hard to visualize (photo by the author).

* * * * *

Thanks to Allyn Gibson for finding the 1852 Sachse view of Washington that includes Trinity Church. Other sources included James M. Goode, Capital Losses (2003); Lorenzo D. Johnson, The Churches and Pastors of Washington, D.C. (1857); Garrett Peck, The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry (2013); John Clagett Proctor, Washington Past and Present: A History (1930); and numerous newspaper articles.

To receive Streets of Washington by email click on this link and choose "Get Streets of Washington delivered by email" from the Subscribe Now! box on the upper right hand side of the page.


  1. Thanks for this history. I had wondered if it was named Trinity because it was the third Episcopal Church. The third Church of England parish in Boston was also named Trinity. (King's Chapel and Christ Church were the first two.)

    1. I'm pretty sure the name is only a reference to the Holy Trinity (i.e. Father, Son, Holy Spirit) and has nothing to do with a numerical sequence.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts