For sixty-seven years, Washington’s most prominent annual religious-political event has occurred not in house of worship but in a hotel ballroom. Yet the site of the Washington Hilton, where the National Prayer Breakfast has been held for at least the last three decades, was almost the home not of a hotel, but a of church.
In February 1953, when the newly-inaugurated President Dwight Eisenhower attended the first such breakfast, the site of today’s Hilton was known as Temple Heights. It was one of the largest undeveloped sites remaining in central Washington and occupied a commanding hillside location at the intersection of Connecticut and Florida Avenues, NW. Near the top of the hill stood Oak Lawn, a mansion built in 1873. The rest of the nine-and-a-half-acre site was grass and woods.
Just a few days before the first prayer breakfast, Eisenhower had joined the National Presbyterian Church. The congregation dated back to the earliest years of the capital, but had received this name from its denomination only in 1947 in an effort claim a larger role for Presbyterians in American life. The fact that the new Republican president joined the congregation was a boost to Presbyterian pride. Two years later, congregation leaders began an earnest effort to secure Temple Heights for a new, landmark church.
National Presbyterian’s existing building was a Romanesque revival church completed in 1889 at Connecticut Avenue and N Street, NW. It was handsome and just around the corner from St. Matthew’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. It was, however, no rival to the mammoth national churches being built by Episcopalians and Roman Catholics (Washington National Cathedral and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception). It also lacked the educational and recreational spaces of new suburban churches as well as their plentiful parking. Many felt that a new building was urgently needed.
Like the founding of the prayer breakfast, the drive to build a new monumental church was part of a Cold War emphasis on the link between religion and American national identity. Few denominations saw themselves as more central to American history than Presbyterians and Temple Heights was a seemingly perfect location for a landmark church.
The architect’s sketch of the proposed building shows it looming like a medieval cathedral over the intersection of Connecticut and Florida Avenues, separated from the capital’s grit and politics by a verdant forest, but drawing many to worship in its walls. Such a church would clearly give Presbyterians a fitting platform for ministry in the nation’s capital.
The building’s clean, modern lines suggested the 1950s’ most famous cathedral project–the new cathedral at Coventry, England. As in Basil Spence’s design for Coventry, the windows of the nave were angled toward the altar to provide it with dramatic light. The clean, modern lines also echoed Coventry and bespoke the International Style and the machine age. But Presbyterian church’s massing owed more to the Gothic revival, with pitched roof and a tall tower next to the nave. As at Riverside Church in New York City, the church tower took the form of a skyscraper. From the hillside location, the upper floors of an office tower on the south side of the nave would have had clear views of the Washington Monument.
Congregation leaders worked through the year to secure the needed funds to buy and develop on the expensive site, but in the end were unable to do so. The Presbyterian proposal joined a long list of unfulfilled dreams for Temple Heights including a Masonic temple and a twenty-one building glass and concrete complex designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The lower portion of the site was sold off for office buildings in 1956 and the Hilton was built on the upper portion in 1965. Eventually, in 1969, National Presbyterian opened a new large modern church of modern design on a less prominent site on Nebraska Avenue near American University.
With the National Prayer Breakfast, Temple Heights is still a site of national religious assembly and influence, though not religious architectural presence. In American religious life the influence of religious groups is often not linked to their architectural place in the landscape.