Luther Place Memorial Church, 150 years on Thomas Circle

Beautifully situated on a triangular lot at the north end of Thomas Circle, the Luther Place Memorial Church, known formally as the Memorial Evangelical Lutheran Church, has stood as an emblem of social harmony for almost a century and a half. Conceived at the close of the Civil War as a memorial to reconciliation between North and South, the church went beyond that in later decades to broadly embrace reconciliation between whites and Blacks, rich and poor, haves and have-nots. And while virtually every other building around Thomas Circle has been replaced in the past 150 years, the Luther Place Memorial Church remains little changed.

Luther Place Memorial Church (photo by the author).

The church was an offshoot of St. Paul’s English Lutheran Church, the first English-speaking Lutheran church in Washington, founded in 1843 at 11th and H Streets NW. (Since 1958, St. Paul’s has been at 4900 Connecticut Ave NW.) St. Paul’s pastor was the Rev. John George Butler (1826-1909), a charismatic leader who was one of the city’s most influential clergymen. Born in Cumberland, Maryland, and taught at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Butler was a staunch abolitionist and pacifist. On graduating from the seminary in 1849, he was immediately assigned to St. Paul’s. During the Civil War, he served as a hospital chaplain, witnessing firsthand how devastating the war was to wounded soldiers recuperating in the District. He later was also chaplain to the Senate and to the House of Representatives.

Photo of Rev. Butler from Samuel Domer, History of St. Paul’s English Lutheran Church 1843-1893. 

After the war, Butler came up with the idea of creating a new memorial church to commemorate the end of slavery and the country’s reconciliation. In March 1866, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church purchased a lot for the memorial just north of the 14th Street Circle for $8,000. It would take some years to raise the money for the new building, but in 1868 a small chapel was dedicated on the north end of the lot as a starting point. From 1868 to 1873, Rev. Butler had charge of the new chapel in addition to his main congregation.

An architect by the name of Judson York prepared a soaring design for the new memorial church. Although the details are unknown, the design as actually constructed was modified by two other architects to save money. The cornerstone was laid October 31, 1870, at which time Rev. Butler reported that he had almost $30,000 on hand for construction of the new building, most of it from St. Paul’s congregation but with additional contributions from “all parts of the country.”

In January 1873, Butler announced that he would form a separate congregation for the new church, quitting his post at St. Paul’s. About a quarter of St. Paul’s congregants followed him to the new congregation. Meanwhile, the building itself was nearing completion. Faced in Seneca sandstone from nearby Maryland, it was an imposing sight in the still sparsely developed neighborhood north of Massachusetts Avenue. In June 1874, the new church was dedicated, the National Republican newspaper taking the opportunity to provide an admiring description:
The memorial is located upon the triangular lot formed by the intersection of Fourteenth and N streets with Vermont avenue. It is the most commanding church site in the city, lying immediately adjacent to the Memorial circle [now Thomas Circle], so tastefully improved under Gen. Babcock. While in the Memorial, built of brown stone, quarry face and dressed lines, the Gothic architecture largely predominates, the capacious structure is so mixed and broken as to be probably the most unique church building in the United States…. 
    The audience chamber is in the shape of an open fan, adapted to the triangular shape of the lot. It has five wide entrances in the chief towers, which yet need their fine spires to complete them…. All the inside work—galleries, pews, altar and pulpit—is of the best Indiana walnut, displaying fine taste and skill in the design and workmanship…. The whole is carpeted and cushioned in green of best qualities, each pew being furnished with book-racks and books of worship…. 

Detail from a late 1870s stereoview image of the 14th Street Circle, before the statue of Maj. Gen. George Thomas was installed.  The Luther Place Memorial Church is finished except for the spires on the towers. (Author's collection.)

By 1876, the congregation had grown from 50 to almost 200. The building was complete except for the spires atop the three towers, which were finally added in 1883 when George Ryneal, a local dealer in artists’ supplies and church vestryman, paid for their construction.

The church gained its informal title, Luther Place Memorial Church, after a statue of Luther was erected in front of the church in 1884 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the reformer’s birth. The statue is a copy of one in Worms, Germany.

Statue of Martin Luther (photo by the author).

In January 1904, while a reception was being held in the old chapel at the rear of the building for Rev. Butler’s 78th birthday, a fire broke out in the main auditorium. The blaze began high up in the rafters above a chandelier. After it was discovered, congregants could do little but watch and wait for the fire department, which was hampered by snow and ice. The roof, main steeple, organ, and stained-glass windows were all destroyed. The steeple, in particular, made for a dramatic spectacle: “The tower reared high its stately head, and all its expanse was sheeted with flame. Flames leaped out into the air, and flames wreathed themselves about the slender structure in strange, bizarre figures. The light was reflected from the snow-covered roofs of the surrounding buildings, glaring white against the darkness of the night,” the Washington Post reported. The spire and roof both collapsed, but Rev. Butler assured everyone the church was insured and would be repaired. It was. President Theodore Roosevelt attended its rededication in January 1905.

Postcard view of the church from around 1910. (Author's collection).

The church has a long history of outreach to support those in need. In 1889, Butler opened a free eye, ear, and throat clinic in the chapel building for “the needy poor of all denominations.” His older son, Dr. William K. Butler, a physician, ran the clinic. By the 1890s, the church added recreational facilities—a gymnasium and bowling alley. Through the years since that time, the church has continued to expand its offerings. After the civil unrest following the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in April 1968, the church remained open continuously for three days to offer shelter, food, and clothing to more than 10,000 people who had been displaced along the 14th Street corridor. Black Muslims even stood guard to protect the building from those who wanted to add it to the many structures that had been torched.

Postcard view of the church from the 1960s, when there were apparently no street trees around it. (Author's collection).

In the 1970s, the church purchased six dilapidated townhouses on N Street for its Luther Place Ministry, a program to provide medical care, food, clothing, and shelter for unhoused women. In 1987, the church partnered with the Washington Urban League to open an additional center focused on healthcare for the unhoused aged. The church’s efforts, now known as the N Street Village, have since expanded to additional facilities and offer a continuum of services, including addiction recovery, mental health services, and vocational and employment assistance.

The main tower up close (photo by the author).

The church building itself has been renovated several times since the 1904 fire, including in 1940 when the interior of the main tower was reconfigured. In 2007, the sanctuary was rehabilitated and new front windows were installed portraying Martin Luther, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Harriet Tubman. Paintings of several other saints were installed on the church’s doors in 2009, adding touches of bright color to the building’s somber sandstone façade.

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Sources for this article included the Luther Place Memorial Church’s website, the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the church written by T. Robins Brown in 1973; Samuel Domer, History of St. Paul’s English Lutheran Church 1843-1893 (1893); James M. Goode, Washington Sculpture (2008); Garrett Peck, The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry (2013); John Clagett Proctor, Washington Past and Present: A History (1930); Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee, Buildings of the District of Columbia (1993); and numerous newspaper articles.


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