Architectural History

In 1891, William A. Potter made the first plan for St. Margaret’s. And the church today looks nothing like it. Since the parish hadn’t even been carved out of the diocese yet, it’s likely that one of the enterprising nearby landowners and future vestry members, who would benefit from having a grand new church near their development, commissioned the design. It evokes the English parish church revival of the 1840s, and its deliberately picturesque, rural feel no doubt was influenced by the still undeveloped fields that surrounded the site.

Although, his work wasn’t used, Potter was an obvious choice for an aspiring Washington congregation at the end of the 19th century. In the 1870s, he had been the supervisory architect for the Treasury Department, which oversaw major federal buildings, and in the decades that followed he built a successful practice designing Episcopal churches and university buildings.

The Potter design was apparently too much for the pocketbooks of the new parishioners. They turned to James G. Hill, who had followed Potter at the Treasury Department. Washington architect and designer of the Government Printing Office, he created a modest chapel. Newspaper reports in 1895 indicated that the church would “be used only temporarily and will cost in the neighborhood of $6,000.” Although the official group raising funds were all men, the fundraisers seemed to be driven by women. One such event was “The Oak Lawn Fete,” on the grounds of Oak Lawn, an estate just across from the church site, and featuring “the Artillery Band from the arsenal… and the Banjo and Mandolin Club of Georgetown.”

All that banjo playing paid off, and in the fall of 1895 the church was finished. It took up two of the six lots St. Margaret’s had purchased along Connecticut Avenue, measuring 41 feet along the avenue, and 91 feet along Bancroft Place. Today, that original structre forms the transept of the current St. Margaret’s. The walls were red brick and the steeply pitched roof was slate, with an ornamental belfry at one end and a cross at the other. The gable ends sported the same big triple windows that remain there today. Then, they were modestly filled with amber “cathedral” glass, as were the low windows that ran along the walls below the eaves. The pews could fit 350 people, the interior was plastered and frescoed, but the practical newspaper reporters were more impressed by the “modern apparatus for heating and ventilating.” The first services were held October 13, 1895, and although the pews and altar weren’t installed yet, it was a lively occasion. More than 500 worshippers attended, so perhaps it was just as well that the furniture hadn’t arrived.

As the church predicted, St. Margaret’s little building indeed was not equal to the task of serving such a growing group of people. It was renovated in 1900 and called by the newspaper reports “a pretty little church,” but bigger plans were afoot. In 1904 work began to expand the church into the remaining four lots along Connecticut Avenue. To do that, the original building became just one end of the new edifice. Architect Arthur B. Heaton designed the addition, which more than tripled the building’s size. The old part of the building became the transept of a traditional cross-shaped plan. An altar area with a grand new organ was bumped out to the south, right at the middle of one of the long sides of the old church building. A much larger main sanctuary bumped out opposite the altar, running parallel to Connecticut Avenue.

As soon as the building was complete (and probably even before), the decorating campaign began. In December 1909, the new altar and the first of the church’s three Tiffany windows were dedicated. Other windows and church furnishings followed, mostly as memorials donated by parishioners.

In 1911, St. Margaret’s was formally consecrated. Why the delay? According to the laws of the Episcopal Church, the building had to be free of debt before it could be consecrated. Although the building had been estimated to cost $13,000, the lots themselves had cost over $46,000. A full $60,000 was paid off between 1905 and 1911 alone, and the church had what must have been the great pleasure one Sunday of ritually burning the mortgages in a brass urn, in the presence of the bishop.

St. Margaret’s had some robing and Sunday school space, but with 1,000 congregants, it was soon not enough. In 1913, the women of the parish proposed the purchase of adjoining lots on Connecticut Avenue, where the parish hall was then built, also designed by Arthur Heaton. The search for interior embellishments continued. Much of the altar furnishings date from the first half of the 20th century, and memorial windows continued to be given and installed. The St. Margaret’s campus grew again when the townhouse next to the parish hall was acquired, providing more room for offices, nursery, Sunday school and meeting spaces. When Connecticut Avenue was widened in the late 1920s, the church lost its ample greensward, and with it the last vestiges of its rural look.

Today, our aging and beloved buildings are our delight and the stuff of our nightmares, particularly for the Buildings and Grounds Committee. Renovations of the parish hall and careful tending of that “modern apparatus for heating and ventilation” have brought us into the new century with a church that will continue to lift the heart and spirit for another hundred years and beyond.


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