Silver Spring church not historic, says Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission

I testified at tonight’s hearing. The HPC voted 6 to 2 against designating the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring. Here is the testimony I delivered earlier this evening:

First Baptist Church of Silver Spring
Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission
Hearing and Work Session

March 23, 2011
Testimony of Dr. David Rotenstein

Good evening Chairman Miles and members of the Historic Preservation Commission. For the record, my name is David Rotenstein. I am a professional historian and architectural historian and I have been retained as a consultant by the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring. I have been employed in historic preservation and cultural resource management for more than 25 years and my credentials have been appended to the report you received prior to this hearing.

I am here this evening to present the results of my review of the designation documentation submitted to you by the Silver Spring Historical Society and to present the results of research I conducted on behalf of the church. After extensive research in the church’s institutional records and those of its parent organization, the District of Columbia Baptist Convention, I found that the Silver Spring Historical Society’s research was incomplete, inaccurate, and fatally flawed. It is my professional opinion that the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring meets none of the Montgomery County criteria for designation in the Master Plan for Historic Preservation.

The Silver Spring Historical Society’s research relied on newspaper accounts and other secondary sources that lack depth and credibility. The society never approached the First Baptist of Silver Spring to determine if records were available to construct a defensible history of the church and its buildings. For more than five years, the Silver Spring Historical Society has molded the church’s past into a narrative that distorts the church’s history and that embellished the biography of architect Ronald Senseman. In its efforts to preserve history, the Silver Spring Historical Society has done significant violence to the great story behind the church’s founding and the institution’s ongoing struggles to continue its mission as the congregation repeatedly outgrew inadequate facilities.

As a member of the HPC in 2005, I first became aware of potential historic preservation issues attached to the church. Back then I wondered whether the building’s architecture was significant and whether the 1956 addition’s architect Ronald Senseman was the master he was being described as by the Silver Spring Historical Society. As the record shows, I wrote in emails that I was unconvinced that the church was significant as defined in the Montgomery County Code and I recommended more research. I could not have anticipated that six years later I would be conducting that research. My research in 2011 confirms that my skepticism in 2005 was well-founded. The results of my research are contained in the report you received and tonight I only want to underscore several of the key points contained in the report:

  • None of the buildings comprising the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring was designed by a master architect;
  • The 1956 addition was not remarkable transitional architecture; it was a compromise between Senseman and a headstrong pastor;
  • The church property has been the site of significant change since 1925 and the surviving buildings do not convey the church’s history in a coherent manner;
  • The First Baptist Church of Silver Spring is isolated from its historical context; and,
  • The history written by the Silver Spring Historical Society fails to accurately contextualize the church.

The parsonage completed in 1926 was designed and built by members of the congregation founded in 1924. Labor and materials were donated and obtained at reduced costs from local businesses. Detailed reports in the church’s records show that the brick building originally had eight rooms that housed the pastor’s family and which were used as Sunday school space.

The wife of one of the founding trustees chaired a building committee in the church’s first decade. She wrote a detailed history of the parsonage’s construction and use. Her 1931 report documents the substantial changes made to the parsonage during the church’s first major building campaign that culminated in the construction of a new sanctuary.

Work on designing the new sanctuary began just as the nation was sinking into the Great Depression. Extensive consultations with national Baptist organizations failed to yield the necessary financial support for building a large new church complex designed by architect George Merrill. Strapped by debt incurred to build the parsonage, the Silver Spring church abandoned Merrill’s designs and recommendations for a local architect. Instead, they chose to build a modest brick addition to the parsonage. It too was designed and built by congregants.

The 1950 addition was designed by the firm McCleod & Ferrara and it relied heavily on using a frame Colonial Revival house the church bought in 1940 as its façade. The frame building was demolished in 1976 and the church was left with a blank façade formed by the unfenestrated gable end of the 1950 addition.

In 1954 architect Ronald Senseman began producing designs for a massive new sanctuary and education building to replace the outdated and outgrown older buildings. Senseman proposed several alternatives with bold modernist massing and finishes. His interactions with the pastor at the time, a very outspoken and headstrong individual, resulted in compromises between the bold modernist designs and art deco elements that already were several years out of fashion.

Senseman was a prolific professional active in his community and profession. He was not, however, considered a master designer by his peers nor by later academics. The Silver Spring Historical Society distorted information in Senseman’s 1966 AIA fellowship application. The AIA digitized the document and it clearly shows that Senseman was awarded the honor for his service to the profession, not for his achievements in design.

The First Baptist Church of Silver Spring has had a dynamic history of building, rebuilding, and demolition. Many of the architectural decisions made by the church throughout its history have involved compromises that involved altering and repurposing existing space to accommodate new uses by greater numbers of people.

The First Baptist Church of Silver Spring currently owns eleven lots in downtown Silver Spring in the block bounded by Bonifant Street to the south, Wayne Avenue to the north and Fenton Street on the west. The church’s original land acquisition was in 1925: three lots along Wayne Avenue. An adjacent lot to the east was acquired in 1940 and another was added in 1957. By 1969, the church had also acquired six lots fronting on Bonifant Street.

Multiple buildings comprise the First Baptist Church: the original parsonage; the 1931 addition; the 1950 addition; and the 1956 addition. Each of these components reflect the architectural vocabularies popular at the time of their design and construction. Neither the parsonage nor its additions, the 1950 addition nor the 1956 addition rises to the standard articulated by the National Register of Historic Places guidance that Montgomery County relies upon to interpret its designation criteria. According to the National Park Service, “A property is eligible [for the National Register] for its high artistic values if it so fully articulates a particular concept of design that it expresses an aesthetic ideal.”

None of the surviving church buildings expresses an aesthetic ideal; rather, the individual church buildings are modest examples of religious architecture common in the 1920s and the 1950s. Neither the earlier church buildings nor the 1956 Senseman-designed addition are classic expressions of the Colonial Revival style nor are they classic and representative examples of the Art Deco or Modernist movements.

The corner of Wayne Avenue and Fenton Street is a well-traveled part of Silver Spring that has had a dynamic, and especially recently, a fast-changing cultural landscape. Historical maps and aerial photographs published after 1920 show the location’s change through time from open fields; to diffuse residential and commercial development; to sprawling parking lots associated with the Hecht’s department store; and, the 21st century revitalization efforts that have brought retail and mixed-use developments and are bringing new institutional buildings such as the Silver Spring library building under construction across Fenton Avenue from the church.

These developments have isolated the church property from its historic landscape. The current church property, with its multiple additions and void from the demolished frame house, has changed significantly since 1925 when the first construction activities were undertaken. The various church buildings that once broke the horizon at the corner are now being absorbed by mixed-use commercial development. The open corridors through which the church may have been visible at the corner of Wayne and Fenton are now crowded with multi-story commercial buildings, multi-family dwellings, and parking structures. The church property itself has failed to achieve the singular recognition through time as an important element in the cultural landscape.

Perhaps the most significant evidence before you this evening is the documentation prepared by the Silver Spring Historical Society. The group failed to accurately capture the church’s history. Their inability to effectively read the buildings and landscape to construct a coherent narrative that tells the property and institution’s story clearly shows that the property does not retain sufficient qualities to convey its significance to amateur preservationists, professionals, and the general public.

For these reasons and for the reasons more fully presented in the report I prepared, I find that the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring meets none of the nine criteria for designation in the Master Plan for Historic Preservation and that the property should not be listed in the Locational Atlas and Index of Historic Sites.

Thank you for your consideration in this matter and I am prepared to answer any questions that you may have.

One thought on “Silver Spring church not historic, says Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission

  1. Well stated report; in my opinion, as a part of the Baptist community in this area, this church has been made to suffer far too many delays in the pursuit of its objectives. Thank you for your contribution toward their efforts.

    For twenty years I was pastor of Takoma Park Baptist Church in DC. Its 1952-3 addition was also a Senseman effort.

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