Update 8/25/2014: A representative from St. Thomas’ Parish has informed me that the new church, like the old, will include a labyrinth that is open to the public. Hooray!
My Weekly Museum Visits project had me using the Dupont Circle Metro station several times. There are museums in every direction from Dupont Circle itself: the Heurich House Museum and the museum-hotel-clutterhouse O Street Mansion southwest of the circle, General Federation of Women’s Clubs headquarters to the southeast, and the National Museum of American Jewish Military History to the northeast.
Northwest of Dupont Circle are Anderson House, the Phillips Collection, Fondo del Sol, the Laogai Museum, Woodrow Wilson House, and (a little farther away in Georgetown but still within a mile of the Dupont Metro) Dumbarton House.
Dupont Circle is not only a good place for people who like museums, but also for people who like food, or drinks, or embassies, or books, or historic architecture, or people-watching, or old churches, or green spaces….
One of my favorite places in the neighborhood is the small park at St. Thomas’ Parish, an Episcopal church built in the 1890s and heavily damaged by arson in 1970. The park has a labyrinth, benches, a grassy space frequented by people walking dogs, and signage informing visitors of the history of the building.
Aside from the labyrinth outside the shuttered Shaw at Garnet-Patterson Middle School, I cannot think of another labyrinth in DC that is both so close to a Metro station and so accessible to the public. Some are indoors or on rooftops and only open certain hours, some are on school grounds that are being used by schoolchildren during the day, and the one at Georgetown Waterfront Park is a pretty, but long, walk from the nearest Metro.
I’ve made use of the St. Thomas’ labyrinth to calm my nerves before job interviews and after eating lunch on one of the benches during my break while temping at nearby offices. I have shown it to family and friends after a restaurant meal or a late night out in Dupont. So I was sad to learn that St. Thomas’ Parish plans to build a new, expanded church on the grounds of the park and sell part of the land to a developer to turn into apartments.
Many residents who live near the church share my initial reaction to the news, and they are campaigning for an expansion plan that would better ensure the preservation of the old church building and the park. The Greater Greater Washington blog describes a meeting of parishioners and neighbors, and the contentious discussions of the issue.
Supporters of the church’s plans point out that there are plenty of other parks and green spaces in the area. This is true. There’s Dupont Circle itself, Stead Park, and Mitchell Park, to name a few. Less often mentioned is how unique the park at St. Thomas’ is in having a labyrinth.
Ultimately, though, the owners of this land intend for it to be a church first and foremost, not a park. I will miss the park, but I have realized that it’s not for me to decide how a religious community uses its land. The needs of the parish trump my desire to have a labyrinth on every block (or at least the block of 18th Street between P and Church).
A similar situation went on for several years at Third Church of Christ Scientist, also in Northwest DC. Historic preservationists had the brutalist building designated as a historic structure, while the church found the building expensive to maintain and the general public sentiment held that the edifice was an eyesore. Ultimately, the church won its battle, and demolition of the building has begun. The church has sold the land to be developed for office use, and the church community has relocated to the Eastern Market neighborhood.
These disputes bring up questions of the purpose of historic preservation and the role of religious institutions in the neighborhoods where they are located. There’s the predictable NIMBY-ism involved, as well as concerns ranging from religious freedom to the effects a new development will have on area property values.
Though the labyrinth at St. Thomas’ has helped fulfill my own spiritual needs, it is not its job to do so, as I am not part of the congregation. I would have liked the parish to preserve the park and more of the historic structure where three U.S. presidents worshiped, but it is not for me to decide. The church is not designated as a historic place in any official way that would obligate the church leadership to preserve the structure. Meanwhile, although Dupont will be losing a labyrinth, it will still be brimming with other historic sites.
Dupont Circle is on the Red Line.