View of church from courtyard.
A view of the church from its sunken courtyard reveals a horizontal addition, in front. To the left is the church’s 178-foot-tall Carillon bell tower, the Tower of Faith.

A Quietly Wonderful Midcentury Church Gets Its First Makeover in Half a Century

While maintaining “a very light touch,” Beyer Blinder Belle has renewed and improved Harold Wagoner’s National Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C.

To expand and renovate the 55-year-old National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., New York-based architects Beyer Blinder Belle (BBB) had to solve several long-standing challenges. But they also needed to have “respect for the existing building” and maintain “a very light touch,” according to Hany Hassan, Director of the firm’s D.C. office, and lead designer of the project. Not an easy task.

This is the first major alteration to this superb but relatively unheralded mid-century modern landmark since it was constructed in 1967. The original architect was Harold E. Wagoner, who specialized in creating religious buildings that maintained a striking fusion of modern and traditional approaches. The Philadelphia Architects and Buildings Project reported that his firm, Wagoner and Associates, designed over 500 sacred spaces in 36 states by 1983, three years before his death. 

Stained glass windows.
The church is renowned for its faceted stained glass windows, created by Philadelphia’s Willet Studios (Now Willet Hauser Architectural Glass.)

Hassan describes the church, located in D.C.’s Tenleytown neighborhood, as “Modern Gothic,” with an emphasis on soaring verticality through its bell tower, vaulted sanctuary, and stained glass lancet windows. Somewhat paradoxically, the design also “used the sloping site’s topography to make a three-story building appear like one story from the street, with the sanctuary and bell tower emerging above the plinth of the garden and secondary spaces,” says Hassan. Wagoner also worked with landscape architect Boris V. Timchenko to create a sunken forecourt marked by a central fountain. 

BBB allowed the strict organizing grid that Wagoner utilized throughout the project to inform its interventions, and carefully chose all new materials and finishes—like wood, architectural concrete and glass—to complement the historic material palette. Hassan notes that the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board’s (HPRB) 2019 approval of the church’s historic landmark application (developed by the church and BBB) essentially had no impact on the firm’s plans, says Hassan.  

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One of the primary issues of the building— which stands as the third-largest religious center in the nation’s capital—was circulation between levels. With the amount of activity inside, “people can easily get lost there,” says Hassan. BBB solved this by adding an open central staircase (as well as a rear entry with two new elevators) that now connects all three floors. The building also needed additional space for meeting rooms, classrooms, and special events. In response, BBB integrated multi-purpose “garden rooms” at the front. These additions, clad partially in salvaged limestone, have expansive glass walls opening onto a new lower-level courtyard. Their roofs have occupiable terraces that connect to the existing north terrace. Hassan notes that the new meeting spaces make sense and don’t feel like an “intrusion” or something that would compromise the image of the building.

The Architect’s Newspaper reports that while the project is complete at the main cathedral building, there are smaller projects across the 12-acre campus that will continue over the next couple of years with the capital campaign formally ending in 2023. Hassan declined to respond on what to expect for these smaller projects. Similar renovation projects led by Beyer Blinder Belle include the restoration and expansion of Holy Rosary Catholic Church, as well as the restoration and relocation of the Adas Israel Synagogue in Washington, D.C. A few of their more well-known works include the revitalization of Grand Central Terminal and their comprehensive rehabilitation of New York City Hall.

Central Stair
A new central stair helps unify the 55-year-old church.
Central stair.
The central stair rises three stories through the building.

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