- An Historic Washington Landmark
- The Past
- First Protestant Agency in the Nation's Capital
- The People
- The Present
- The Future
- Building use controversy
The Methodist Episcopal Church ought to have a worthy building at the nation's capital," Bishop William F. McDowell stated in 1920. "The Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals has the perfect site and the perfect plans... The new building will make our church visible and multiply its power at this world's center."
A building creates an image; it is a symbol. The United Methodist Building, for 75 years, has been a symbol of justice and peace not only for The United Methodist Church, but for denominations worldwide. Its message has been communicated through the people who work and live there, the offices that they operate, and the meetings and discussions that they conduct.
For 75 years the United Methodist Building in Washington, D.C., has served as a witness at the center of government power to the church's beliefs -- a reminder that the church is concerned for people and all that affects them. Through its halls and in its offices have begun some of the most widespread justice movements of the 20th century.
This is the story of that building, the people, the movements, the decisions -- past, present, and future.
A Historic Washington Landmark
The United Methodist Building is the only non-government building on Capitol Hill. It is designed in Italian Renaissance style and constructed of Indiana limestone with a craftsmanship that would be difficult to duplicate today.
In addition to its architectural beauty, the building is significant for the role it has played at turning-points in the nation's history. These include the 1963 March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; the 1968 Poor People's March, the farmworkers' boycott; years of protest against the Vietnam War; ERA marches, the 1978 Longest Walk of Native Americans; and the 1989 Housing NOW! March.
It's adjacent apartment complex, constructed in 1931, has been home to scores of congressional representatives' Methodist bishops and Supreme Court Justices men and women in leadership roles who have shaped the fabric of American society.
The Building's beautiful Simpson Memorial Chapel, named for a close personal friend of President Abraham Lincoln, has served as a place of sanctuary and prayer for those who live and work within the shadow of the Capitol. Within these walls, leaders from both parties and all religious persuasions have found the strength and courage to act on their convictions.
On Washington's Capitol Hill, a muddy, billboard-cluttered corner lot was spotted in 1917 as the perfect site for Methodism's social reform presence in the Nation's Capital. After its purchase, construction began on Nov. 17, 1922. A five-story building, located at 100 Maryland Avenue, was completed in 1923 at a cost of $650,000 to house the Methodist Episcopal Church offices, especially the Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals. Money for the project was raised through individual and church gifts, some as small as 15 cents.
At the building's dedication on Jan. 16, 1924, its purpose was emphasized as being that of a "sentinel" and a supporter for social reform in the Capital; a voice for the religious community, a visible witness. Speakers for the dedication were the famed orator William Jennings Bryan and Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot, who emphasized the need for reform efforts to be working all the time, not spasmodically. Newspapers of the time noted the loyalty of Methodists to the nation's political form and social tradition with "civic righteousness as the true foundation of sane progress."
The board added on the 110 building in 1931. Money derived from the renting of its apartments made possible further expansion of the social witness and action of the church. It's 55 apartments were rented in less than 30 days, despite the competition of the Depression. Soon after that, the 110 building became a financial burden, and it was only through generous friends of the 100 building's founder, Dr. Clarence True Wilson, that the 110 side survived the depression in Methodist hands.
From the beginning, ecumenical concerns were prominent in the Methodist Building. The Board of Temperance was moved by the denomination from Topeka, Kansas, to the Nation's Capital to fight for Prohibition on an ecumenical front. When Prohibition was voted into effect before the building was finished, the board faced the dilemma of what to do next. Since its mandate already included gambling and public morals, broader fronts were opened up for work on issues such as obscenity in publications and films. The board also worked on stalling the repeal of Prohibition.
During the 1960s, groups and agencies against the war in Vietnam coordinated their efforts for international peace from the building and protesters found refuge there during anti-war demonstrations. The location also lead to the building being a focal point for other protests, demonstrations, and marches, such as the 1968 Poor People's Campaign, farm workers' boycotts, the 1979 Farmer's Tractorcade, and the Native American's Longest Walk.
One of the major movements to come through the building was the women's movement. Early on, women's equal rights supporters coalesced with some of the women from the Prohibition and earlier anti-slavery movements to begin a new women's movement. Supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment used the building as a center for organization and activities during the 70's and early 80's.
Since the 1970's the building has been the center of the ecumenical community's work on energy and environmental issues. It was the ecumenical center for the 1980 and 1990 Earth Day Celebrations.
Human rights, a foundation of the Gospel and cornerstone of the building, found expression in many agencies working on issues related to Latin America, the Middle East, Haiti, Africa, South Africa, Korea, Taiwan and East Timor, just to name a few.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had its genesis in the United Methodist Building. When George H.W. Bush took office, he undertook a major effort to write and pass the ADA. A representative was sent from the President's office to the building where a coalition of over 100 different organizations met weekly. It was there that the ADA was written, edited, and perfected.
Children have long been a concern of The United Methodist Church, from its Social Creed in 1908 including reform measures for child labor, to the current work of the Bishop's Initiative on Children and Poverty. The United Methodist Building served as a launching pad for many movements on children's issues, including the Stand For Children March in the mid-90's that included almost every bishop in the denomination. The witness of the Methodist Building has not been restricted to the often-controversial "social" realm. The building's chapel, opened in 1929 and refurbished in 1954, 1971 and 1984, has experienced not only great preaching and worship, but also religious "rallies" for many causes. For example, the night Congress adopted the law making Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday a national holiday, a celebration took place in Simpson Memorial Chapel with Coretta Scott King during which 150 candles were lighted to express thanks.
First Protestant Agency in the Nation's Capital
The United Methodist Building has not gone without threats to its existence. In the early days, the board's publication noted that "those people who would like to publish that we are here to dominate the thoughts of all residents, and everybody on Capitol Hill would find it difficult to reconcile this notion with the position recently taken by several occupants (legislators) of our building... We do not busy ourselves with their politics or their religion."
This was the first national Protestant agency to locate in Washington, D.C., and early promotion within the church more than hinted at a major Catholic presence as a motivating factor. This prime property -- the only non-governmental site adjacent to the Capitol -- was often the target for government expansion. One of these occasions led the owner-board to develop its own plans, later abandoned, for moving to a new site across town. At one point planners for the new Supreme Court building had proposals in Congress to take over the neighboring Methodist site.
There have been, of course, those who complained about the church's presence adjacent to seats of political power. Over the years, there have been a hand-full of bomb threats and evacuations as people sought to change, through violence, the social policies developed by the church. Then, as now, the Board follows the directions and mandates of the General Conference.
For at least one point in its history, the building provided evidence of other legitimate relationships to the centers of government. In 1976, the nation's Bicentennial year, the building provided regular public worship services, displays, expanded briefings and visitor information. Some people remember, in another generation, watching parades and fireworks from the roof of the building, and now find it is off limits, windows closed and locked, during such events as parades and presidential inaugurations.
Through 75 years, the exterior of the building hardly has changed; there was no major renovation until 1998. Interior change has been constant as the issues change and office space shifts to meet that need.
People have been at the heart of the United Methodist Building since its inception. They include:
The Rev. Clarence True Wilson , executive director of the Board of Prohibition, who saw the need for the building, recognized the right property, planned the development and raised its financing.
Mrs. Wilson who, while her husband was raising building money, served as financial officer, property manager and director of operations. She also drew the original plans, which were approved by the board and given to the architect for development.
Members of the boards who maintained the vision, kept the building afloat through the Depression and other adversity, recognizing the changes around them and adapting the building to meet them.
Staff members who supported the boards, carried on extensive research, developed policies, and worked to implement them.
Volunteers whose efforts supplemented staff work and extended the outreach of the agencies.
Individuals of all ages from across the globe who often got their first, more-than-superficial view of the US Capital as seminars participants, interns, and visitors, where they learned about the church, the government, people's needs and ways to help.
Apartment residents, including a Supreme Court justice, several senators and representatives, and a presidential candidate.
To think that this "sacred space" exists within steps of the seat of United States power is nothing short of a miracle. The United Methodist Building today continues to draw the best of the brightest to work on issues of concern to all people. The emphases related to the building are based on a series of documents, dating back to 1907, when a group of Methodist Episcopal Church leaders developed, in Washington, D.C., a Social Creed. That statement, adopted by General Conference in 1908, became the pattern for similar declarations by other Methodist denominations and the National Council of Churches. Through the years the Social Creed was revised, expanded and perfected to meet the perceived new needs, largely under the ministry of the Board of Church and Society. Since 1972, the Board has been considered the "trustee" of the Social Principles, a direct out-growth of the Social Creed.
The wide array of religious and other agencies housed in the United Methodist Building is involved in research, seeking answers, proposing legislation (to their denominations), informing their constituents and lawmakers about church policy and practice, answering questions, and performing a host of other tasks on a long list of inter-related social issues. The list varies year by year, but over time, these issues have been at the forefront:
As the building's 75th anniversary approached, the General Board of Church and Society responded to the pressing need not only for refurbishing the structure but for adapting it to the needs of current users. The 100 Maryland Avenue building was evacuated for 12 months in 1998-99. Entire floors of the structure were gutted, walls moved, stairs and doors removed or moved, utilities updated, computer cabling installed, efficient heating and cooling units installed, all during a multi-million dollar renovation. Nearly all the office tenants returned to the 100 side, which today is all conference rooms and non-profit church agency space.
The renovation of the United Methodist Building, financed like the original campaign by church and individual donations, is not complete. Already in the thinking, if not the planning, is the eventual rehabilitation of the 110 building as well. But the original structure, the 100 building, is now in condition to house and sustain the patterns of social reform for which it was created, for generations to come.
The story of The United Methodist Building tells of the movements of God's spirit and God's people to advocate for international human rights and justice. The building will be there in the future, to continue to share the messages developed within its walls, to house the meetings and talks needed to research and meet needs, to witness to the churches' beliefs in social reform, and to continue to express concerns for people, supported by religious principles founded on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, across a hurting, hungry, and hope-filled world.
Building use controversy
The General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) Trustees seek to resolve as quickly as possible the questions that have recurred in the last several years concerning the proper use of the United Methodist Building and the income it generates.
Trust Case Information