Among the legion of nationwide AME churches, D.C.'s John Wesley AME Zion Church, 1615 14th Street NW, is an integral part of the District's diverse, textured, historical fabric.
With Civil War-era roots and 21st century dreams, a parish house - which was the original church - and the present church structure built in 1894 had fallen short of the current sanctuary, educational, hospitality and administrative challenges of its dynamic congregation, with antiquated mechanical systems—especially an old boiler—draining the church's energy and finances. What’s more, and in part unbeknownst to the architects and developer at the outset, various architectural and aesthetic features and flourishes that had temporarily succumbed to renovation attempts in the past were uncovered in a kind of reverse archaeological dig—50 feet up into a rarefied space lost to generations of church members and staff.
What lies beneath
“Our focus has been more on the Corcoran Street and east sides of the building as far as restoration, underpinning and digging out underneath a space that was just crawlspace for new facilities and rooms for the church,” said Principal Bill Bonstra of Bonstra | Haresign Architects. Working with developer Fred Bahrami and project architect Jeremy Arnold, the team’s objectives were to restore, modernize and upgrade a total of 12,000 s.f. of space with limited financial resources.
“We were very sensitive to the budget of the church,” Arnold said. “We felt the most important thing was (to address) lengthy and overlapping programs with a number of different-sized spaces that can be used in different ways: multipurpose rooms; storage closets; changing rooms; new office space. We wanted to give them spaces that would help them use the building more efficiently on a day-to-day basis.”
Used for meetings, classrooms, banquets, administration and containing a dated and inadequate kitchen, the 4,400 s.f. parish house was a patchwork of disjointed spaces. Engaging a neglected crawlspace beneath the parish house, a hole was made in the foundation from the outside, followed by a ramp and dual bobcats (30,000 cubic feet of dirt was ultimately removed and recycled as fill, with recovered iron recycled as well), with the structure’s middle support replaced by brand new steel columns, beams and footings in a feat of subterranean choreography. The resulting 9-ft.-high new basement has become home to a full commercial kitchen with banquet space for 150, and ladies’ and men’s facilities, and also contains state-of-the-art plumbing, HVAC, fire and safety systems, and a new elevator.
The parish house above was gutted and became dedicated office space for the pastor and administrative staff, along with conference rooms that facilitate the simultaneous viewing of sanctuary services and events via advanced technology.
A glimpse of heaven
According to Arnold, during the team’s initial survey process, poking heads above a lay-in ceiling that had been installed years ago on the second floor and peering past a mélange of mechanical ductwork, a “fairly complex system of beautiful trusses” emerged. Springing at 45-degree angles from the corners, the trusses also traversed a 20-ft.-in-diameter rose window that had been eclipsed very possibly for generations by the dropped ceiling. Evidence of a fire sometime in the 20th century was also observed in black staining and charred trusses, where several of the roof trusses had been reconstructed using wood and steel.
Destined for use now as one of the primary meeting spaces for the church, accommodating up to 250 people, Bahrami is credited with pulling the mechanical ducts through the trusses resulting in “…an interplay of old and new,” according to Bonstra. “It’s incredible space. It’s 50 feet (up),” Bonstra explained. According to Bahrami, the wall around the rose window was deteriorating stucco, which was removed to expose fine brickwork and sealed. Lighting was directed so that wall and window now become a focal point of the church.
“The entire structure has about a 2-ft.-thick brick wall,” Bahrami said of the building, noting the wall makes for prime insulation by its nature. He added that 80 percent of the interior fell apart during the renovation process, which is ongoing through the end of July, so new structural elements that include steel, wood beams and flooring are being employed.
Outside, the façade off Corcoran Street had been neglected with evidence of damaged stained glass and disintegrating brick. Work expected to begin soon includes creating a more presentable entrance to the parish hall side, upgrading the ADA ramp, and landscaping for curb appeal. An ill-placed fire escape was removed from the front of the building, bringing dignity back to the stoic façade.
“There were really no corners cut. One of our focuses was to make sure the bathrooms were comparable to the Ritz Carlton or something of that magnitude,” said Bahrami, whose previous endeavor with Bonstra | Haresign was D.C.’s luxury Q-14 Residences in 2007. “You really feel pampered with marble and granite and the design of some of the spaces—beautifully assembled and selected,” he said, affirming the team’s objective not to subordinate aesthetics to a restricted budget.
With occupancy again projected for August 1, Bonstra said the success of the project is attributed to Bahrami’s assiduous search for alternatives and value propositions for the church. “He did a great job in meeting all of their financial goals.”
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