Commentary, Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington: August 17-23, 2023

The wrecking ball looms on the property long occupied by the now-disbanded Arlington United Methodist Church at 716 S. Glebe Rd.

In another sign of demographic and cultural change, Sunrise Senior Living is proceeding with plans to replace this 1947-vintage Protestant spire and Georgian red brick sanctuary with a retirement community.
Unless some preservationists deliver a miracle.

Gerry Deavers has attended the church since 1955, recalling fondly his wedding there and the daily music from the carillon that rang across the Alcova Heights neighborhood. He recounts the congregation’s history dating back to entries on Civil War maps (the only other local church on those maps is Mount Olivet on N. Glebe Rd.). From a small schoolhouse off Columbia Pike in Penrose, the early Arlington Methodists, among them one Sarah Baily, created Hunter’s Chapel (Louise Hunter gave the land), which was demolished during the war. In 1893, a successor was built at Pike and S. Edgewood St., and then came the existing large-scale version that housed an Arlington religious community expanding after World War II.

By 2015, a congregation of some 3,000 that had to put out extra chairs had dwindled to a few hundred. Their fellowship disbanded in 2015.

Deavers is pressing Sunrise to preserve the sanctuary and tower as “a compliment to the new development, rather than just another bland, boring group of buildings so typical of today.” Future Sunrise residents would have a place to attend church, while management gets some revenue from weddings and concerts, he notes.

Sunrise declined to comment on the proposal.

But inquiries to county permitting staff confirmed that the company’s site plan is headed for the Planning Commission in September, having already been reviewed this spring by the Site Plan Review Committee after public feedback. Historic Preservation Planner Lorin Farris said staff reviews confirmed that there are no historic designation protections for the property. “The discussions over the past two years have been focused on influencing the proposed design of the new construction to be sensitive to the existing architecture of the neighborhood.”

But several activist groups are on the case. The Arlington Historical Society (on whose board I serve), which recently received a query from an out-of-towner seeking his ancestor’s grave on the church’s original site, negotiated with construction firm PWC Companies for photos and to salvage a stained-glass window. But no other access (or archaeology) was permitted.

Tom Dickinson, who runs a preservation group called Save Historic Arlington, implored his followers on Nextdoor to blitz the county government with protest. “This proposed massive destruction and wholesale transformation/development of this unique historic property is adverse and detrimental to the greater long-term interests of the neighborhood, the county and the region,” he wrote. “This former house of worship uniquely represents a time and a place when church-going, activity, and support were major components of community cohesion and integral to life in Arlington.”

Eric Dobson of Preservation Arlington told me it was “unfortunate that the church didn’t have this conversation when they sold the property.” They might have obtained some kind of protective easement as a condition of sale.

More proof that Arlington is the center of the universe.

My wife and I recently thought we should re-examine our wills. In a safe place in our home has long rested a photocopy, but the original that the probate world requires was with a downtown law firm.

Trouble is, that firm went out of business. I kept Googling and Binging, even calling the D.C. Bar. Their suggestion was to search for former partners by name. Bingo, found one. Reached him. Yes, firms that dissolve are supposed to contact clients to arrange document distribution. Somehow we fell through the cracks.

Astonishingly, this attorney had our will — in his basement. And he lives walking distance from our house. He made the delivery in person.