Beyer Blinder Belle revamps the capital’s landmark National Presbyterian Church

Liturgical Refresh

Beyer Blinder Belle revamps the capital’s landmark National Presbyterian Church

Located in Northwest Washington’s Tenleytown neighborhood, the National Presbyterian Church campus is among the largest religious complexes in the U.S. capital and one of its most prominent works of modernist architecture. (Alan Karchmer/Courtesy National Presbyterian Church)

Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners (BBB) has announced the completion of its renovation and expansion of the National Presbyterian Church (NPC) in Washington, D.C. The project is the first significant alteration to be carried out at the modernist NPC complex in its over 50-year history. In 1967, President Dwight D. Eisenhower laid the cornerstone for the NPC, which was dedicated and held its first services two years later in the fall of 1969. (Earlier incarnations of the present-day congregation, formed in the late 1940s, date back much further to the late 1700s.)

The NPC congregation held a dedication ceremony this past Sunday, October 17, to celebrate the realization of the project, which first kicked off in earnest in 2014 with the approval of a strategic plan. Master planning commenced the following year and, in 2016, New York-headquartered BBB, widely recognized for its historic preservation and adaptive reuse projects, was tapped as the architect. Following the firm’s selection, the makeover has progressed slowly but surely with a capital campaign launching in March 2018 and the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board approving the NPC’s landmark application in September of 2019. A year after that, in September 2020, ground broke on major construction work with MCN Build serving as contractor.

Looking upwards into a soaring church tower
(Alan Karchmer/Courtesy National Presbyterian Church)

Smaller projects across the NPC’s six-building, 12-acre campus (the NPC complex is the third-largest religious center in the nation’s capital) on Nebraska Avenue NW will continue over the next couple of years with the capital campaign formally ending in 2023. The campaign has raised over $11 million thus far.

The BBB-led revamp focused exclusively on the NPC’s main cathedral building, a Northwest D.C. landmark designed by Philadelphia-based ecclesiastical architect Harold E. Wagoner, whose other significant works include the Cathedral of the Rockies in Boise (1960), the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale (1973), and the interiors of the Church Center for the United Nations in New York City and SOM’s United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel near Colorado Springs (both 1962). Realized in limestone and steel, the mid-century neo-Gothic main sanctuary structure at NPC is famed for its faceted glass windows by Philadelphia’s Willet Studios (now Willet Hauser Architectural Glass) and 178-foot-tall carillon bell tower, the Tower of Faith.

a large central staircase in a church
A new central staircase is a central feature of the NPC renovation. (Alan Karchmer/Courtesy National Presbyterian Church)
looking upwards from a staircase in a soaring, window-lined space
(Alan Karchmer/Courtesy National Presbyterian Church)

Renovation efforts in and around the main sanctuary building were expansive, with a bulk of it being infrastructure-related. Much of the work focused on minimizing the house of worship’s environmental footprint, included upgrades to the aging HVAC system and boiler, security and technology infrastructure improvements, the installation of energy-efficient lighting, the addition of a stormwater bio-retention system, and more.

Improved accessibility was also a key concern. A new addition includes a spacious rear entry space with a pair of elevators that serve all three levels of the landmark cathedral building.

A second new addition, clad in salvaged limestone, hosts classroom and meeting spaces and extends a garden-overlooking terrace, which is the site of outdoor goings-on held by the congregation. The formal garden itself, which features an elliptical pool at its center, was also reimagined to be more accessible to congregants of all abilities according to the architects.

long vertical panes of stained glass in a modernist church
The NPC is known for its long lancet windows filled with stunning faceted glass. (Alan Karchmer/Courtesy National Presbyterian Church)
a modernist church campus with a tall bell tower
(Alan Karchmer/Courtesy National Presbyterian Church)

In addition to the two new additions and myriad behind-the-scenes upgrades, the soaring centerpiece of the project—a “pivotal design feature,” per BBB—is a dramatic new central staircase that connects all three levels of the main sanctuary building while providing sweeping views of the terrace and redesigned garden. As noted by the firm, “the renovation improves the Church’s facilities for ministry by addressing accessibility, traffic flow, unification of programs, and by introducing flexible rooms and spaces for gathering.”

“Beyer Blinder Belle’s renovation of the National Presbyterian Church, and light touch approach to new interventions, creates a more accessible and welcoming experience throughout,” added Hany Hassan, a partner at BBB who serves as director of the firm’s Washington, D.C. office, in a statement. “Our work introduces a contemporary entry and new central staircase, expressive and open in design, to draw people through all three levels of the Church.”

In addition to BBB and MCN Build, the larger construction and design team included Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates; Michael Vergason Landscape Architects; MCC 1200AE; Stroik Lighting Design; James Posey Associates; Jensen Hughes; Wiles Mensch Corporation, and Miller, Beam & Paganelli.