By the early nineteenth century, Georgetown Lutheran Church was in disarray. The original log cabin church built in 1769 had fallen into disrepair, and regular services were no longer held.
There remained, however, a burying ground on the land that had been allocated to the Lutheran Church by Charles Beatty and George Frazier Hawkins in 1769. Grave markers for early members of the congregation were clearly visible, and the land had been fenced to keep animals away.
The heirs of Beatty and Hawkins saw in the derelict church building an opportunity to reclaim the land deeded to Georgetown Lutheran Church and use it to develop new, more lucrative, buildings. According to court documents, they entered the property and “threw down the fence and tombstones.” Georgetown had grown considerably since 1769, and was now more densely populated, with rowhouses sharing space on the streets with businesses and public buildings, as seen on the artist sketch below.
John Rubens Smith, Georgetown from Lee Hill From Fort Lee at Georgetown, 1828 (Library of Congress)
Although the church building had fallen down, there still existed a voluntary society of Lutherans, and they filed an injunction seeking to end the trespassing and resolve the dispute over the land title. The case eventually found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it is recorded as Beatty v. Kurtz, 27 U.S. 566 (1829).
The heirs of Beatty and Hawkins claimed that the 1769 deed to the Lutheran church was conditional, which would have terminated the title when the church fell down and was not replaced.
The Court found in favor of the Lutherans. Justice Joseph Story, writing the unanimous opinion of the Court, affirmed a perpetual injunction against the heirs of Beatty and Hawkins (the defendants).
George Peter Alexander Healy, Portrait of Justice Joseph Story
Here is a key extract from the decision:
“This is not the case of a mere private trespass; but a public nuisance, going to the irreparable injury of the Georgetown congregation of Lutherans. The property consecrated to their use by a perpetual servitude or easement, is to be taken from them; the sepulchres of the dead are to be violated; the feelings of religion, and the sentiment of natural affection of the kindred and friends of the deceased are to be wounded; and the memorials erected by piety or love, to the memory of the good, are to be removed so as to leave no trace of the last home of their ancestry to those who may visit the spot in future generations. It cannot be that such acts are to be redressed by the ordinary process of law. The remedy must be sought, if at all, in the protecting power of a court of chancery; operating by its injunction to preserve the repose of the ashes of the dead, and the religious sensibilities of the living.”
The Beatty v. Kurtz decision is considered a foundation of U.S. law regarding cemeteries and the status of human remains for several reasons.
Drawing of the grave markers and list of names still visible c. 1910
The bodies were reinterred, but the church did not keep a record of where. I reached out to a number of local cemeteries, who were unable to provide any additional information as to the current resting place of the earliest members of the congregation.
Our sanctuary was designed in 1914 by the architecture firm of Murphy and Olmsted. Oddly enough for a Lutheran church, the firm and its partners were noted for their work on Catholic churches, and their work can still be seen in many buildings in the D.C. area.
Frederick Vernon Murphy (photo courtesy of the DC Architects Directory)
Frederick V. Murphy (1879-1958) and Walter B. Olmsted (1871-1937) formed their architecture firm in 1911, after Murphy graduated from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1909. They had met as young draftsmen working in the Office of the Supervising Architect in the Department of the Treasury. Both men had close ties to Catholic University (where Murphy chaired the Architecture Department starting in 1911), and designed numerous churches in the D.C. and Baltimore areas.
Walter B. Olmsted (photo courtesy of the DC Architects Directory, taken from the Washington Star in 1937)
Georgetown Lutheran Church is in the Gothic revival style, similar to St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Alexandria, VA, which they designed in the same period.
Saint Joseph Catholic Church (photo courtesy of Saint Joseph Catholic Church)
One of the firm’s most elaborate projects in the 1910s was the chapel of Our Lady of the Angels in Catonsville, Maryland, which is in the classical revival style with marble walls, an elaborate main altar, and mosaics by Bancel LaFarge.
Chapel of Our Lady of the Angels (photo courtesy of the Society of St Sulpice)
Between 1919 and 1936, Murphy was one of the architects working on the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Roman Catholic church in North America, located in Northeast D.C.
Laying of the Foundation Stone of the Basilica in 1920 (photo courtesy of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception)
Murphy continued to have a distinguished career after Olmsted’s death in 1937. He worked in his own until 1940, and later formed Murphy and Locraft, which he ran until his retirement in 1954. He led the Department of Architecture at Catholic University until 1949.
In the second half of his career, Murphy continued to design churches, including the Shrine of the Sacred Heart on 16th Street NW. He expanded his practice to larger buildings, still related to the Catholic community, such as the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See (Embassy of the Vatican) on Massachusetts Avenue, and several buildings on the campuses of Catholic University and Georgetown University. His final project was the Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial, a cemetery for American soldiers killed during World War II located in St. Avold, France.
Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See (photo courtesy of the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See)
Murphy served on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts from 1945 to 1950, was a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor and received multiple honors and awards from organizations related to the Catholic Church.