Brief Architectural History of Church at 13th & Fairmont Streets


The church at 13th and Fairmont was designed by Appleton P. Clark, Jr.

I’ve long appreciated the architectural beauty of the church building located on the northeast corner of 13th and Fairmont streets, NW, in the heart of Columbia Heights. I personally think it is one of the more beautiful churches in the area. Significantly, the church has been home to only two congregations.Today, The Greater First Baptist Church, Mount Pleasant Plains, calls this building home and has since it acquired the building in 1956. Before that, it was the home of Fourth Presbyterian Church which built the original building and began worshiping there in 1899. Both congregations are deeply rooted in Washington with interesting histories in their own right. Fourth Presbyterian was founded in 1828 and Greater First Baptist was founded in 1878.

In the future, I hope to write more in depth about both congregations’ histories, but for now I’m going to focus on the architectural history.

While the church appears to be one building constructed at one time, that actually isn’t what happened. The structure as completed was designed in 1927 by well-known Washington architect, Appleton P. Clark, Jr. The building appears to be designed in the Italian Renaissance Revival style. The cornerstone was laid on October 21, 1927, and plans were made to celebrate the dedication of the new structure on the 100th anniversary of Fourth Presbyterian’s founding.

The beautiful building completed and dedicated in 1928 was the end result of a process begun around 1889 and with a much different design. The Fourth Presbyterian congregation decided to move from their original location at 9th and Grant Place, NW, and relocate to Columbia Heights in 1898, after nine years of contemplating a move from downtown. They chose and empty lot at 13th and Yale (Fairmont) Street and hired noted Washington architect Frederic B. Pyle. Pyle’s overall plan for the church building would remain mostly true over time. It contained a large Sunday school and chapel structure at the rear of the property (with the entrance along Fairmont Street) and the sanctuary toward the front with the entrance at the corner of 13th and Fairmont streets. Pyle chose to design the building in the Gothic Revival style, however this aesthetic would never be realized beyond the chapel structure.

original 1899 design(The Gothic Revival church designed by Pyle)

Fourth Presbyterian 1922When construction ended in 1899, only the rear portion of the church designed by Pyle was completed. This was the chapel and Sunday school section of the church and it would be the primary church space until the larger and remodeled church structure was completed in 1928.

It is interesting to note that while the primary sanctuary remained unfinished until 1928, a smaller addition was added to the chapel in 1903. This addition was a gymnasium building auxiliary to the church and first opened on May 20, 1903. At the time of construction, Fourth Presbyterian was one of two churches in Washington with an established gymnasium. The other church with a gymnasium was the Whitney Avenue Christian Church. In addition to the provision for gymnastic exercise in the building, it also contained a reading room and was used for entertainment.

Though not obvious to most people looking at the building today, traces of the original Gothic chapel and the gymnasium addition are both visible to anyone knowing where to look. The east elevation of the chapel was not modified during the 1927 reconstruction and still shows its original red brickwork and Gothic windows. It is a little harder to see the gymnasium building. That requires a walk through the alley to the rear of the building, where the gymnasium addition is clearly visible.

chapel greater first baptist(The east elevation of the church along Fairmont Street shows the original Gothic design of the 1899 chapel building)

gymnasium building of church(The 1903 gymnasium addition as seen from the alley)

Gymnasium interior(Interior of the gymnasium from 1903)

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One Comment on “Brief Architectural History of Church at 13th & Fairmont Streets”

  1. […] In July 1927 a new auditorium was constructed in front of the original church. It was reported that the addition would bring to completion the original plan of the congregation. It is interesting to note that many of Washington’s church buildings were constructed in stages and that the architectural design of the original church could change as the building was enlarged (the church at 13th and Fairmont is a good example). […]

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