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Georgetown Lutheran Church is the oldest Lutheran Church in D.C. The church staff looks to preserve its history, while making the building more accessible. (Maya Smith/The Wash)

Oldest Church in Georgetown looks to preserve past, prepare for future with restoration plan

Georgetown Lutheran Church wants to address ADA issues, restore its 1914 bell tower, and better manage stormwater.

Georgetown Lutheran Church sits perched on a hilly Wisconsin Avenue, separated from the sidewalk by two sets of crack-riddled concrete staircases.

The stairs have become unsafe and are on the verge of deteriorating. Replacing these stairs is one piece of the church’s 250th-anniversary restoration project. The project’s goal is to make the church more accessible and “welcoming,” Charles Bushman, the congregation president, said. Bushman and his wife have been members at Georgetown Lutheran for eight years. He’s served on the church council for the past three years.

“It’s really easy to ask who cares,” Bushman said. “But we are committed to it because it’s ours, and it’s the right thing to do.”

The Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2e unanimously voted in support of the church’s plan on Sept. 29. The Old Georgetown Board, which must approve all new construction in the Georgetown Historic District, followed suit on Oct 1st.

The concepts were approved by the Old Georgetown Board earlier this month. Now the project moves into the design phase. (Courtesy of Georgetown Lutheran)

Bushman, who is spearheading the project, said Georgetown Lutheran began the first phase of its preservation effort last year when the church celebrated its 250th anniversary.

The church launched its Capital Campaign in 2019 with the goal of raising $250,000 and logging 250 service hours toward roof repairs and other deferred maintenance, Bushman said.

Now, looking ahead toward the next phase of restoration, Bushman said the plans are “more proactive and less emergent.”

Phase two has three principal aims. The first is to restore the church’s 1914 bell tower to its original appearance and replace the two decaying staircases that connect the tower door to the sidewalk.

The Old Georgetown Board approved the church’s plans to remove the crumbling structure because it posed a safety hazard. (Maya Smith/The Wash)

In 1942, a separate stone bell structure was placed in the church’s front garden that is now deteriorating and at risk of crumbling.

Bushman said there was a “considerable” discussion with the Old Georgetown Board about removing it, but the board conceded, agreeing that the structure created a safety hazard.

The second prong is addressing water build up in the church’s basement, which has caused mold. The plan is to build a stormwater management system to “get the stormwater off of the site responsibly,” Bushman said.

“Instead of just dumping it,” Bushman said the church wants to clean the stormwater to ensure there isn’t pollution going into the city sewer system.

Preserved and accessible

The last piece of the project with the most community impact is improving accessibility to the site, Bushman said.

“It pains me to this day that when I got married, one of our wedding guests in a wheelchair had to drive up the front lawn in order to join us for our celebration,” Bushman said. “Especially since we are particularly dedicated to being opening and welcoming to the public.”

The plan is to install an accessibility ramp to the front door, so anyone who uses a mobility device can “get from the sidewalk to the front door with some dignity and a proper ramp,” Bushman said. “It’s an elegant way to address the mobility issue.”

Joe Gibbons, the ANC 2e representative for Georgetown, favors the plans largely because of the accessibility piece. Gibbons described the landscape as “crumbling” and non-ADA accessible.

“Accessibility for people with disabilities shouldn’t be a hindrance, especially at a church,” Gibbons said. “I’m always in favor of making things accessible, even if it means violating historic preservation regulations.”

A historic photo of Georgetown Lutheran from 1936. (Courtesy of Georgetown Lutheran)

Historic preservation rules don’t trump a person’s ability to get around, Gibbons said. “Just because it was done like that in 1850, it doesn’t mean it should in 2020.”

Gibbons said the historic preservation guidelines are “not like ten commandments. They’re more like golf. There are rules, and we make them up as we go along and interpret them.”

“It’s important to preserve to show what we were like, but we’re a museum or Disney World,” Gibbons said. “People have to live here, so it’s always a balance.”

‘Lots of factors’

The bell tower alone will cost $100,000, but the total cost of the restoration efforts is still being calculated, Bushman said.

The project is just moving into the detailed design phase, which Bushman said: “could take a while.”

Once the technical design aspects are solidified, the church will know the total price tag. Georgetown Lutheran submitted a $50,000 grant application to the DC Preservation League at the end of September to fund a portion of the project.

If selected, that funding would become available Jan. 1. To fund the rest of the project, Bushman said the church would do a second round of the Capital Campaign.

There are “lots of factors that weigh into the timeline,” Bushman said. After the design phase wraps up, the church must take its detailed plan to the Old Georgetown Board for the second round of approval.

If OK’d, the church can then move on to the final step of applying for a DC building permit.

The two sets of cracked staircases will be redesigned for better access. (Maya Smith/The Wash)

“Realistically,” Bushman said construction wouldn’t begin until at least spring, and the goal would be to finish by the end of 2021.

Lauren Boston, communications director for Georgetown Business Improvement District, said Georgetown Lutheran Church has always played an active role in the Georgetown community.

Georgetown BID, a non-profit that works to maintain the accessibility, attractiveness, and appeal of Georgetown’s commercial district, holds several public outreach events at the church each year.

“It’s a fixture on Wisconsin Avenue,” Boston said. “We look forward to partnering with them again in the future.”

Bushman said restoration is crucial in order for these types of events to be more accessible in the future: “Taking care of building and making it more accessible to others is taking care of this spot of Georgetown.”



Maya Smith

Maya Smith is a journalist interested in finding answers to questions about race, mental health, and equity. She covers Georgetown for The Wash.

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