We’re The Church of the Holy City one of the 10 most beautiful churches in Washington D.C., located on the Heritage Trail. Construction began in 1894 and has, since it’s inauguration, been an architectural centerpiece in the community. The church made its movie debut, in the classic movie, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” starring Michael Rennie and its location was cited in Dan Brown’s Novel “The Lost Symbol” Check It Out!
With over 50,0000 members worldwide , Famous Swedenborgians include Helen Keller, Johnny Appleseed, Andrew Carnegie, and more recently Mehmet Oz acknowledges being influenced by Swedenborg.
The first Swedenborgian congregation in Washington, DC was organized in 1846. Its initial home was a structure on North Capitol Street, between B and C Streets, a site now encompassed by the U.S. Capitol Grounds. Fire destroyed that building in 1889. The structure that would replace it was intended to raise the profile of the small and largely unknown Swedenborgian denomination. It was planned to be not only the new home for its orphaned Washington congregation but would serve as the denomination’s national church. Thus, it was decided that the new building should be a grand edifice, located on 16th Street, the favored address in the 1890s for the expression of other similar ecclesiastical ambitions.
The site selected was about a mile directly north of the White House and the architect chosen to design the church structure was Professor H. Langford Warren, prominent in his field and dean of the Harvard University School of Architecture (now the School of Design). Paul J. Pelz served as the supervising architect; the builder was Spier and Co.; and Lane and Meinati oversaw the stonework. Construction began in December 1894 and the church was dedicated ion May 1896.
It is the stained glass windows that most often draw visitors to the church. Both those commissioned for the Church of the Holy City and those originally part of other Swedenborgian churches were created in such distinguished studios as Ford and Brooks, Lamb, and Tiffany.
Reverend Dr. Frank Sewall, the first minister to occupy the pulpit of the new church, determined the themes to be reflected in the windows.
The interior of the church and the connected parish house, also designed by Warren and built in 1912 exhibit color and ornamentation that contrast with the with the relative severity of the exterior. Deeply influenced by the ideas of John Ruskin, William Morris, and others as embodied in the English Arts and Crafts Movement, Warren played a leading role in establishing the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts and promoted the Arts and Crafts aesthetic in his architectural designs. This is strikingly apparent in the parish house, where a distinctive, winding staircase ascends past was of multi-hued bricks and blue tiles. The incorporation of such features in the Church of the Holy City reflects Warren’s commitment to a collaboration of artisan and architect, reflected in the exterior gargoyles and the first stained windows in the sanctuary, both created by other charter members of the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts. Interestingly, while Warrenm was a decidedly conservative architect, drawing artfully upon historical models, his use of concrete for the staircase and in various features of other structures that he designed marks an innovative exploration of the possibilities of that building material.
The church’s design reflects the English Gothic aesthetic that Warren championed, which embodied a restraint that rejected elaborate ornamentation and original contemporary styles such as Art Nouveaux. Thus, the body and tower base are austere, although the tower is granted a rather ornate crown. While Warren was a practicing Swedenborgian, the church’s design does not reflect Swedenborgian beliefs and ideas in an obvious way, with two exceptions. The baptismal font is located at the front of the sanctuary, at the “secular level,” while the altar is located several steps above, in the “sacred realm” and the Bible is prominently displayed in a stand at the center of the altar, and is ritually opened at the beginning of each Swedenborgian service and closed at the end.
Those along the nave, as well as the large window in the west facade, contain subjects from the law and the prophets, while the transept windows present scenes from the gospels. The seven windows above the altar portray angels, who represent the ‘seven churches which are in Asia,” as described in the first part of the New Testament book of Revelation.
This essay draws substantially upon Maureen Meister’s excellent biography, Architecture and the Arts and Crafts Movement: Harvard’s H. Langford Warren.
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