Tucked away on a quiet inner city cul-de-sac, the Culture House building is an explosion of color amidst the bumpy asphalt and low-rise housing in Southwest Washington, D.C.
The building was home to the Friendship Baptist Congregation for almost a century and was a cornerstone of the neighborhood’s social fabric. Reimagined in recent years as an art space, it is now a treasured community hotspot once again.
The church was built in 1886 by former slaves and is one of the oldest extant buildings in Southwest. The fact that it has survived to the present day is something of a miracle. During the 1950s urban planners saw the neighborhood as as “blighted” and bulldozed nearly the entire thing to make way for freeways and public housing projects.
According to a 1960 Washington Post article, the District Redevelopment Land Agency bought up 98.5 percent of the area in the mid 1950s, evicted residents and tore down nearly everything, including more than 20 African-American churches. According to the Historic American Building Survey, Friendship Baptist was spared the wrecking ball because “the church’s pastor, Reverend Benjamin H. Whiting, argued that the church was a bedrock neighborhood institution,” and they had just completed an educational center addition.
Historic walls notwithstanding, the Friendship Baptist congregation ended up relocating to more spacious facilities nearby within a decade, and the aging religious house passed through a number of owners before finally closing in 2001. A real estate developer purchased the storied building with the intention of building condominiums and office space, but a 2004 Historic Preservation Board designation blocked the project.
Legally prevented from tearing down the century-old walls, the developer went back to the drawing board and commissioned Atlanta-based painter HENSE to enliven the facade with an artistic intervention. A colorful mural now wraps around the building like a Basquiat meets Jackson Pollock billboard. The psychedelic-looking graffiti continues throughout the interior and has transformed the former nave into a ravey performance space. Downstairs there is space for a gallery of rotating art exhibits, and a portion of the grounds are now used as a community garden. Going strong 130 years in, the newly renamed Culture House (previously named Blind Whino) serves the neighborhood once again, though it now attracts a younger, more bohemian flock.
Know Before You Go
The gallery is open Wednesdays from 5-8, and weekends 12-5. You can check the event schedule on their website: www.culturehousedc.org