Art Deco on Capitol Hill: The Church of the Reformation

The Lutheran Church of the Reformation was not the first Lutheran church in the city; eight others already existed when it was formed. But its current home at 212 East Capitol Street NE on Capitol Hill is among the most distinctive of the city’s houses of worship from that era. Architecturally, it is a blend of classical design elements and Art Deco embellishments. Massive and dignified, it projects authority and mystery.

Photo by the author.

As early as 1866, Capitol Hill residents who were members of St. Paul’s English Lutheran Church (the first Lutheran church in Washington) began meeting as a separate group in their homes. In 1869, they were formally recognized as the Church of the Reformation when they held their first services in a surplus army hospital barracks at 1st and C Streets SE, which they had obtained from the government. It was a modest wooden building with little or no heat in the winter, and after ten years the congregation sorely needed something better.

The congregation then purchased a lot on the north side of B Street (now Independence Avenue SE), just to the east of the Library of Congress. Work soon began on a new church—a typical red-brick, Victorian Gothic Revival structure with lancet windows, a steeply gabled roof, and a four-story bell tower. Begun in 1881, the building’s festive dedication in November 1883 featured an elaborate floral display, including contributions from the White House Conservatory. The handsome church was “crowded to its fullest capacity, even the aisles being filled,” according to The Washington Post.

Postcard from the 1911 showing the first Church of the Reformation on Independence Avenue SE. The postcard celebrates the fact that the church's mortgage was finally paid off, allowing a ceremonial burning of the mortgage documents (author's collection).

The church prospered for four decades at this location, but ultimately its close proximity to the Library of Congress spelled its doom. When the Library started to plan a new annex (now known as the John Adams Building, at 120 2nd Street SE) in 1928, federal officials asked the church how much it wanted for its property. The church asked for $190,000, and the library countered with an offer of $66,500. Needless to say, the church did not accept the counteroffer. Eventually a court ruling awarded the church $103,700, and plans to move and build a new church began in earnest.

The distinguished local firm of Irwin S. Porter (1888-1957) and Joseph A. Lockie (1881-1949) was tasked in 1933 with designing the new church. Porter and Lockie were noted for their skill in incorporating Art Deco design motifs into Washington commercial and institutional buildings. According to architectural historian Richard Striner, the Church of the Reformation is Porter and Lockie’s finest work.

Completed in 1935, the church is clad in Indiana limestone, as are many of Washington’s most distinguished buildings from this era. The main portal in the otherwise blank central block stands 32 feet tall and features oak doors that are 15 feet tall and 10 feet across. Crowning the portal is a sculpted pediment featuring Christ with a boy and girl at his sides. Rays of light tufted with billowy clouds spread downward from his halo. The pediment recalls the tympanums of Gothic cathedrals, but in a flattened, Art Deco interpretation. The façade also features subtle classical elements, including fluted pilasters and two large windows screened with crosses and Xs in heavy limestone.

Closeup view of the pediment (photo by the author).

Inside, the church sheds monumentality in favor of a gentler Arts and Crafts look. A deep blue, wood-beamed ceiling arches over the interior space in the tradition of German and Scandinavian hall churches. The narthex is partially paneled in oak, which is repeated in the chancel at the front of the church, adding a touch of the modern, Art Deco feel to the largely traditional interior. The delicate detailing, decorative cross designs, pale yellow walls, and oak furnishings lend a warmth to the space that contrasts with the stark exterior façade.

Since completion in 1935, the church has seen one major addition. In 1939, a new Parish House was constructed on the west side of the church. Completed in 1951, the modernist, limestone-finished, three-story hall appears as a natural extension of the church. It has seen a number of community service functions, including as a school and community health clinic. Over the years, the church has also acquired several townhouses adjoining its property to accommodate its growing mission. Since 1995, It has undertaken a number of renovations of its main building, rebuilding the organ, redesigning the chancel, updating the heating and air conditioning system, and restoring the stained-glass windows.

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Sources for this article include: George E. Hutchinson, Celebrating Our Past with a Vision for the Future: Lutheran Church of the Reformation 1869-1994, (Washington, DC: Lutheran Church of the Reformation, 1994); Elizabeth Johns, The Architecture and Symbolism of the Lutheran Church of the Reformation (Washington, DC: Lutheran Church of the Reformation, 1985); Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee, Buildings of the District of Columbia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Hans Wirz and Richard Striner, Washington Deco: Art Deco in the Nation’s Capital (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1984); and numerous newspaper articles.


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