Thursday, February 26, 2009

History, Memory, and Material Culture: An Abandoned Cause... or is it?

This is the subject of my minor field statement. I've been pouring over Freud, Halbwachs, and Nora, over public history, museums, monuments, and quilts, trying to figure out what I mean and how to say what I mean.

It is the least of my intentions to put you through the rough, ragged pieces of my semester's headaches. Instead, I want to share with you the lived embodiment of history, memory, and material culture I experienced on Saturday with Randall. On our way to a great little cafe in Adams Morgan, he pointed out the historic former LDS church on 16th St. NW, now owned by the Unification founded by Korean religious leader Sun Myung Moon, popularly known as the Moonies.

The building is itself a fascinating story. This stretch of 16th Street became the place to be for respectable American churches in the 1920s. Tall, imposing stone structures line both sides of the street in the neighborhood in an effort to claim stake to the national capital. About the same time as the National Cathedral a few blocks over, and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception over in NE DC, this "Street of the Churches" includes St. John's, First Baptist, Foundry United Methodist, Universalist National Memorial, National City Christian Church, and on and on. So the Mormons took advantage of the property and built this beautiful structure, using the same stone used in the Manti Temple in Utah, and including stained glass unique to Mormon tradition and theology.

Unfortunately, the race riots of the 1970s proved problematic for the neighborhood, and with the suburban sprawl and the decline of inner-city membership, the Church abandoned the imposing stone edifice, focusing attention on chapels outside the District and, of course, the majestic temple on the beltway. A few years later, the Unification Church bought the property and has made heroic efforts to maintain the building. East coast humidity has not done well with the stone of dry central Utah. The baptistry and gym have been updated into office space, and the building is rented out to several different denominations to pay for upkeep.

Wow--Salt Lake or DC?

The stone and spires, reminiscent of the Salt Lake temple, remind the passersby of earlier times, of efforts not only to make the Western desert bloom as a rose, but for the fledgling American religion to stake its ground, its identity, and its culture on the streets of the national capital.
The stained glass on the top left and right have representations of Utah mountains, introducing geographical differences between the cradle of the Mormon Church in the West and the fertile East Coast. And the window in the middle is a map of North America. Each block below has flowers.

A part of me wants to see the building rescued, to prevent the danger of lost history and effort. But the realistic preservationist in me recognizes the expense. The history of demolished Mormon buildings is a touchy subject for many in Utah. While the LDS Church has certainly developed and maintained a strong presence, the history of that development is a beautiful tribute to the inner-city Mormon pioneer--not one who crossed the plains with handcarts and wagons, but one who braved the city and built a monument. Even if it's just a memory.
If you zoom in, you can see the engraving, "The Glory of God is Intelligence" under the window.


Laurel said...

OOOOH. I so love this.
Thanks for sharing!

The Harkness Family said...

You are so amazing! Thakns for the great pictures. The windows are incredible.

Lael said...

This reminds me of a pbs program I watched called "The Rape of Europa," about the Nazis stealing the art, and therefore history of Europe. A misguided US missile, meant for the leaning tower of Pisa (which the Nazis were using strategically as a lookout), hit a hall of frescoes called Camposanto, built in the 15th century. Before that time, it was a major destination, and the leaning tower was just a curious side light. How much do I know about Italy, and I'd never heard of Camposant. In 50 years, it had been lost!

another amy said...

This is so cool, Jenny. I'd heard about this building, but never known where it was or if it still stood. Didn't it previously have an Angel Moroni on top too? Thanks for the pictures. I'm kind of a Mormon architecture groupie, so I loved it. I feel the same as you - too bad the Church can't buy and preserve, but also, realistically not feasible. Maybe the Marriott's could do it. :)