Divine Intervention (Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Washington, DC)

April 02, 2007

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The 1794 chapel at Holy Trinity Catholic Church is one of the most sacred spaces in Washington, D.C. -- the first place where Catholics could worship publicly in what was later to become the nation's capitol.  It's sacred in a more secular sense to its immediate neighbors, residents of the historic Georgetown community and fierce guardians of its architectural character.

So when the Archdiocese of Washington commissioned Kerns Group Architects, of Arlington, to recommend ways to add meeting, outreach, and office to Holy Trinity's landlocked N Street site, the designers had to be sensitive both to the church's needs and to local residents who fear encroaching development, no matter how well-intentioned.

The result was a divine intervention: a sophisticated series of renovations and additions that not only brought new luster to the 18th-century landmark but reinvigorated it for the 21st century.  "The design challenge was to honor the building's historic nature while providing new spaces for parish life in the 21st century," said principal-in-charge Thomas L. Kerns, FAIA.  "The neighbors didn't want any growth, but they knew the parish was entitled to some growth.  So there was a lot of back and forth about what could change.  In the end, it was good for the whole project."                          

The Jesuits established Holy Trinity Catholic Church in 1792, eight years before Washington replaced Philadelphia as the nation's capitol.  When the parish built the hilltop chapel in 1794, it became the first place of Catholic worship in the District of Columbia -- then still part of the Archdiocese of Baltimore -- and the first place of public worship in Georgetown.

After a larger church was constructed around the corner in 1850, the original chapel was used as a school, a convent, and a parish office.  By the 1990s, however, Holy Trinity had grown to 10,000 members, and church leaders wanted to renovate and reopen the chapel to accommodate services that would not fill the larger church, including daily mass and small weddings and funerals.  They also wanted to add space for the pastoral and administrative staffs, meetings, and support services.  Finally, they wanted to create a new public entrance from O Street, on the other side of the block, complete life safety improvements, and made the entire campus accessible to people with disabilities.

Kerns's plan called for careful renovation of the original and the delicate insertion of additional space on the parish grounds.  Much of the new space was put underground or set back from the street to lessen its visual impact.  In all, the parish gained 17,000 square feet of new construction and 16,000 square feet of renovated space.  The above-ground additions also helps define two outdoor "rooms" -- a North Court that provides parking space on weekdays and doubles as an after-service gathering space on weekends, and an intimate East Garden.

The heart of the $6 million project is the renovation of the original church, named the Chapel of Saint Ignatius Loyola after the founder of the Jesuit Order, the Society of Jesus.  Work consisted of a gut renovation of the interior to create a 90-seat worship space and restoration of the shell.  Exterior brick, wood windows, entrance doors, and millwork were all preserved.  A second floor of offices, added in the 19th century, was removed to recapture the double height volume and reveal the original timber roof trusses 30 feet above the floor.  Contractors also carefully excavated the area beneath the chapel to provide storage space and a multipurpose room, and to strengthen its foundation.

The restored chapel's simple, restrained features -- including a heart pine floor and soft white plaster walls -- recall its humble origins without replicating its 18th century appearance.  Natural illumination from clear glass windows is supplemented by concealed indirect lighting and halogen accent fixtures and spotlights. 

A decorative screen of painted millwork contains niches for liturgical elements and establishes a secondary scale and order, while concealing mechanical ductwork.  The architects worked with local craftspeople and artisans in the design of the baptismal font, altar table, pulpit, tabernacle, stations of the cross, and statues -- all contemporary in nature.

During a recent visit, Kerns noted that the congregation has been exploring ways to add a few more seats -- a sign that space is well used.  "It's becoming very popular," he said.

To replace office space previously located inside the chapel, the architects designed a three-level addition, with two levels above ground and one partially below.  Set back from N Street the full length of the church, the above-grade portion contains meeting spaces, offices, and vertical circulation and frames the new East Garden, a popular space for contemplation.  Additional meeting rooms and offices were created underneath the garden and illuminated with skylights.

Tucking as much of the expansion below ground as possible, Kerns said, was a key to preserving the presence of the original chapel and minimizing the impact of the new construction from the street.  At the garden level, the skylights are shielded by a wooden pergola that lets natural light filter through to the spaces below, making them seem less subterranean.

In the addition, the architects worked with materials, colors, and finishes found in the area to create an addition that was "gentle to the neighborhood," yet expressive of the parish's mission.  Old and new elements were interwoven in a way that makes clear what was restored and what was added.  The design team also developed a consistent attitude about connecting buildings and inserting new spaces into the historic setting, Kerns said.  "There were areas where we maintained the 18th-century container, and areas where we left the container," he said.  "They're not smashed up against the other."
The project also includes the Liturgy Center, a compact three-level addition to a corner of Holy Trinity School, also on the parish grounds.  It includes a maintenance shop and two levels of space for the Georgetown Center for Liturgy.  Along with the other addition, the school, and rectory, it frames the North Court, which provides barrier-free access from O Street.

The Rev. Lawrence Madden, now with the Georgetown Center for Liturgy, was Holy Trinity's pastor during the renovation.  Madden personally took on the task of raising much of the money for construction, and Kerns credits him with being the force behind its success.

Substantially completed in 2000, the project has received several honors, including a national Design Award for Excellence in Architecture from the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture, and an honor award in design from the Virginia Society AIA.

Jurors in the IFRAA awards program called the project stunning.  "It is a beautiful design, and it fits so well with the context," they noted.  "It also has a certain rigorous and rational quality that picks up on the intellectual tradition of the Jesuit Order."

The Virginia Society AIA jury was no less complimentary.  "We loved the floor plan and admired the abstraction of the form in the chapel," they agreed.  "This is one of the few projects we reviewed that finds the merit in the site and the program and marries the two.  It's very sophisticated."

The parish has been delighted with the project as well, and amazed that the architects were able to fit so much so sensitively on the limited site, said chief operating officer Ray Petro.  "It's not just the staff," Petro said.  "We find people sitting in the garden all the time -- for prayer, for meditation.  It has become a spiritual oasis in the middle of the city."


Holy Trinity Catholic Church
Architect: Kerns Group Architects, P.C., Arlington (Tom Kerns, FAIA, principal-in-charge; Sean Reilly, AIA, Brian Donnelly, AIA, Jonathan Glick, Mary Frickie, Joe Wheeler, Sue Lohsen, proejct team)
Liturgical Consultant: The Rev. Richard S. Vosko, Ph.D.
Landscape Architect: Michael Vergason Landscape Architects
Consultants: AdTek Engineers (civil); McMullan & Associates, Inc. (structural); Dehrlein & Associates (preservation architect); Bansal & Associates, Inc. (mechanical, electrical, plumbing engineers); Miller-Henning Associates (sound/acoustical engineers); C.M. King & Associates (lighting consultant)
Artists: John Dreyfus (bronze candleholders); Claire McArdle (stations of the cross, statue of the Virgin Mary); Pazzi DePeuter (sculptural figures)
Contractor: Roy Kirby & Sons, Inc.
Owner: The Archdiocese of Washington

Edward Gunts is the architecture critic of The Baltimore Sun.  This article first appeared in Inform: Architecture + Design in the Mid-Atlantic (2003:3) and is reprinted here with permission.

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