The story, if true, is almost apocryphal.
It is Spring 1917, Washington, D.C. While walking from his office just behind the Library of Congress to Union Station, Clarence True Wilson noticed a vacant lot across the street from the United States Capitol. He knew, at that moment, that the organization he led – The Methodist Episcopal Church's Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals – had to buy the property and erect a building.
That land, located at what is now 100 Maryland Ave. NE in Washington, is home to the only non-governmental building on Capitol Hill. The Methodist Building, as Wilson first called it, has been a place of mission and ministry since its construction in 1923.
The 1916 General Conference of The Methodist Episcopal Church mandated that the Board of Temperance move from its location in Topeka, Kansas, to Washington, so that it could be a stronger voice among lawmakers, according to Kurt Karandy, a Ph.D. candidate in American religious history at Princeton University, who is writing his doctoral thesis on the building.
"The Board was renting space at 204 Pennsylvania, SE, when they first arrived in Washington," he said. "Almost as soon as they moved, [Wilson] thought it was a priority to build a Methodist building and create a claim on space in Washington."
A monument to prohibition
In Wilson's mind, Karandy said, the Methodist Building was a monument to prohibition— the banning of all sale, manufacture, transportation and consumption of alcohol — and was to be a center where Methodists could continue to engage in public welfare advocacy.
The 18th amendment to the United States Constitution, enacted by Congress on Jan. 29, 1919, made prohibition the law of the land. Methodism was at the forefront of this movement. Today, the church supports abstinence from alcohol, advising those "who choose to consume alcoholic beverages (to practice) judicious use with deliberate and intentional restraint, with Scripture as a guide ." (Para. 162L, The Book of Discipline 2012)
However, as the History Channel notes, "The increase of the illegal production and sale of liquor (known as "bootlegging"), the proliferation of speakeasies (illegal drinking spots) and the accompanying rise in gang violence and other crimes led to waning support for Prohibition by the end of the 1920s."The 21st Amendment, enacted in 1933, repealed prohibition.
The Methodist Building was funded by many small donations, Karandy said. "The original general secretary for the Board [Wilson] came up with a plan to focus on small donations, Sunday schools, Epworth Leagues and churches," Karandy said. "He wanted to target young people because he felt that temperance benefitted and was in the interest of young people."
Not everyone was happy with the Methodist presence on Capitol Hill. Clarence Darrow, the famous lawyer, sarcastically said it "enabled busybodies to sniff the breath of congressmen en route to the U.S. Capitol." It housed, he said, the "most brutal, bigoted, ignorant bunch since the Spanish Inquisition."
Witness to God's concern
Today, The United Methodist Building stands as a witness on Capitol Hill, says the Rev. Clayton Childers, director for conference relations at the General Board of Church and Society, the primary tenant and trustee of the building. "God cares about the decisions that are being debated each day on Capitol Hill," he said. "Decisions that can promote a more just and flourishing world, or decisions that can cause harm to so many. God cares, and our building bears witness to God's concern."
Thousands of United Methodists, as well as other people of faith, gather in the building each year for witness, advocacy, programs, dialogues and events, said the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, current general secretary at Church and Society. "The historic public presence and witness of United Methodists helps many publics and leaders from across the world appreciate United Methodism's role in justice, peace and ministry," she said.
A "legion of significant spiritual and historical events, decisions and faithful responses to calls for discipleship and Christian witness" are associated with the building, Henry-Crowe added. She especially noted the 1963 March on Washington led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; the 1968 Poor People's March; the farmworkers' boycott; years of protest against the Vietnam War; Equal Rights Amendment marches; the 1978 Longest Walk of Native Americans; and the 1989 Housing NOW! March.
The United Methodist Building was designated as a United Methodist Historic Site at the 2015 Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference. The conference also voted to urge the General Commission on Archives and History to move "expeditiously" to designate the building as a Heritage Landmark. Each landmark "is a structure or location specifically related to significant events, developments, or personalities in the overall history of The United Methodist Church or its antecedents," according to the Archives and History website.
org.In 1917, the vacant lot cost just under $27,000, Karandy said. The total cost of the building was nearly $650,000, or $9.1 million in 2016 dollars.
The cornerstone for the building was laid in January 1923. It was dedicated Jan. 16, 1924, with former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryant being one of the guest speakers. That date marked the fourth anniversary of prohibition going into effect.
During its first meeting in the building, Karandy said, the board wrote resolutions on issues ranging from prohibition and temperance to lynching, marriage and divorce laws and child labor laws. "Already, they were thinking of prohibition as this kind of legacy along which they would think about other public morals issues," Karandy said.
Home to world changers
Also from the start, the Methodist Building contained apartments and offices that others could rent. The top three floors were built in this manner and money from renters helped pay the mortgage. Clarence True Wilson and his family were among the renters, Karandy said.
Over the years, many famous people have lived at the United Methodist Building, at both the 100 and 110 Maryland Ave. addresses. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich lived in an apartment there as did former Vice President Al Gore and his father, Senator Al Gore Sr.
In the 1930s, as President Theodore Roosevelt's "New Deal" policies began to take hold, the federal government started a buying spree of land and buildings in Washington, Karandy said. One of their prime targets was the Methodist Building, which was now adjacent to the newly erected Supreme Court.
Today, in addition to the General Board of Church and Society, the building is home to ecumenical organizations, from the National Council of Churches to the Islamic Society of North America. The United Methodist Council of Bishops has an office in the building, as does the General Commission on Religion and Race and the Baltimore-Washington Conference.
Chapel services are held every Wednesday in the Simpson Memorial Chapel. The chapel is named in memory of Methodist Bishop Matthew Simpson, a friend and confidant of President Abraham Lincoln.
The Rev. Erik Alsgaard is editor of UMConnection, the official publication of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference. He is also a former director of communications for the General Board of Church and Society.
A number of other tenants share space with General Board of Church and Society in The United Methodist Building. They include:
Baltimore-Washington Conference Episcopal Office (United Methodist)
Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church
United Methodist General Commision on Religion and Race
Catholic Relief Services
Children's Environmental Health Network
Church World Service
Churches for Middle East Peace
Creation Justice Ministries
Episcopal Church Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society
General Conference of Seventh Day Adventist Church
Islamic Society of North America
KIDS 4 PEACE
Lutheran Services in America
National Council of the Churches of Christ (USA)
National Family Farm Coalition
National Religious Campaign against Torture
PICO National Network
Presbyterian Church (USA)
Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
United Churches of Christ
This list does not include renters of the private apartments in the building.