The primary photo in this article features a landmark that is widely known to people in the greater Washington DC area, particularly those on the Virginia side of the river. But it isn’t significant or important enough to have any clout nationally or even outside the region. It’s a visual landmark in the sense that Kevin Lynch defined landmarks in his work The Image of the City (1960),but it offers no real cultural or historical significance. Like the notorious “brick dick” water tower in Ypsilanti, Michigan (known and loved throughout metro Detroit), this prominent feature in the northern Virginia skyline isn’t imposing or breathtaking or rich with layered subtexts. It’s just funny.
And it doesn’t take any great contemplation to see why it’s funny.
That’s right, it’s a church on stilts, precisely one story closer to heaven than the typical ecclesiastical structure. More importantly, the main source of its droll presence becomes obvious as one ventures just a tiny bit closer.
See it? Maybe zoom in a wee bit more.
Underneath the glowing red digital numbers is the business advertising those prices. Yes, it’s a Sunoco sign, and Arlington Temple United Methodist is a gas station church. Perhaps the gas station church, at least in this region. If there are others, they’re the stuff of local lore, much like this one in the Rosslyn district of Arlington County, Virginia.
I don’t necessarily know if it’s a marvel of structural engineering, but the triangular “flatiron” shape to this gas station church only amplifies its oddity, its prominence within the intersection notwithstanding. It owes its unusual shape partly due to the parcel itself, but also the atypical spike in land values in Rosslyn over the last half century. Long a seedy, neglected, flood-prone district immediately across the Potomac River from Georgetown, Rosslyn never attracted more than a few incipient settlements well until the early twentieth century, despite the fact that a bridge had spanned the river for decades even before the Civil War (and it was a prominent ferry crossing before that). Only in the mid 1960s with the construction of an early segment of Interstate 66 (featuring a wide, new Theodore Roosevelt Bridge) did Rosslyn establish an identity outside of car dealerships, pawn shops, cheap hotels, and impound lots. But with a new commuter path leading straight into the heart of Washington’s primary business and lobbying quarters, Rosslyn suddenly became hot property. The completion of the WMATA Blue and Orange subway lines further galvanized land values, prompting high-rise structures unencumbered by DC’s strict height limitations. To this day Rosslyn has, by far, a bulkier skyline than anything in the District of Columbia. The spire of Arlington Temple United Methodist is just one apex of many.
But it’s definitely the funniest looking tall structure in this compact, busy, youthful downtown. The tenant might have changed—for many years the locals nicknamed the church “Our Lady of Exxon”—but Arlington Temple has always had purveyed petroleum below its sanctuary floor. It goes without saying that there’s a story. Founded in 1970 in response to the growing population of formerly sparse Rosslyn, the Reverend James Robertson saw an opportunity for a new ministry in an unchurched area. With all the new transportation threads needling their way through the neighborhood, land was expensive. But Dr. Robertson found this underutilized triangular parcel, which a local lumber company donated. (The fact that a lumber company had land holdings in Rosslyn fifty years ago should prove how much this area has changed.) Recognizing both the escalating value of the land and the inevitable challenge of building a ministry in an area that, at the time, was still derelict and sparsely populated, Dr. Robinson correctly deduced that county zoning permitted gas or service stations on this parcel. And, even if the membership to the church struggled, the church would never be at a loss for funds, thanks to a reliable tenant. The local regulations naturally permitted a church because First Amendment protections generally ensure that a church can locate anywhere. The relative dearth of gas stations in the area translated to a likely strong demand—a first-floor tenant that wouldn’t shut its doors at the first recession. And the church is still every bit the sanctuary one would expect. Congregants can either park on the street, climbing external stairs into the church, or they can find a space at a neighboring office building (empty on Sundays) and take the skywalk right into the church building itself.
Dr. Robertson’s speculation proved to be a smart gamble (pun fully intended—keep reading!); at a time when Mainline Protestant churches are folding in both large cities and small towns, Arlington Temple United Methodist has prevailed. It may not be flourishing, but an average attendance of fifty isn’t so bad for a United Methodist Church in a region dominated by childless young professionals, many of whom earn their daily bread through lucrative federal positions, the attendant lobbying/activist organizations, or STEM jobs lured to the region through its high concentration of knowledge workers. Weekly church attendance among Rosslynians is most likely very low. But people of all creeds get their gas tanks filled.
It’s not a large Sunoco Station. Only four pumps—two with an entrance on the Nash Street side and two accessible by Fort Myer Drive. The steep slope that comprises a large portion of Rosslyn requires this bilevel entry.
Here’s the entrance on the higher-elevation Nash Street:
But I’m more fascinated by the neon glow in the background from this photo above. Like most gas stations, this Sunoco under the Arlington Temple has a tiny convenience store near the cashier. This is typical. But what to say about the products that this particular Sunoco sells? The neon sign to the left of the entrance indicates Virginia Lottery tickets are available. Is it weird that a church would allow a variant of gambling under its own roof (literally)? Perhaps not: denominational views on the sinfulness of gambling run the gamut, from complete condemnation to evening poker and blackjack tournaments in the church basement, often attendant to congregation-initiated fundraising efforts. Furthermore, even the most ascetic of churches still routinely tolerate raffles, which fundamentally operate under the same betting logic as a lottery.
So what is the United Methodist Church (UMC) official view on gambling? Apparently, according to its website, the UMC perceives it as a “menace to society” and that Christians “should abstain from gambling”. Interestingly, the ministry in question here also reveals its effort to sequester this social ill from individual sin, instead indicating that it is “destructive of good government” and that the Church should “promote standards of justice and advocacy that would make it unnecessary to resort to commercial gambling-including public lotteries, casinos, raffles, Internet gambling. . .as a means of producing public revenue or funds for support of charities or government”. The fact that the UMC prioritizes “promot[ing] standards of justice” that render gambling unnecessary hints at its commitment to a collectivistic, social gospel, but it is strange that it should specifically list public lotteries. I suppose Arlington Temple UMC isn’t generating revenue itself through the Virginia Lottery, but it has no problem leasing its real estate to a tenant that does so. One degree of separation is an arm’s length from firsthand sin.
Peering through the window (which is all I wanted to do during this visit, since I had been out jogging and had no intention of buying anything), I could see that the tiny interior did not sell any beer or intoxicating liquors. (In Virginia, the latter is usually only available in Commonwealth-run stores—at least for now.) But does the UMC allow consumption of alcohol? Well, yes—“with deliberate and intentional restraint”, which usually prohibits drinking to intoxication. The Church strongly discourages abuse and encourages abstinence as faithful witness. But, retaining its sociological view and downplaying individual agency, the Church advocates “addressing issues that lead to the abuse of alcohol and other drugs”. And I know that most United Methodist churches still serve unfermented grape juice at communion, usually restricting any consumption of alcohol within the church.
As an addendum: a vacated UMC church in my hometown became a coffee shop with vegan munchies and live concerts on weekends, but most bands didn’t want to play there because the old church building, not yet deconsecrated—still owned by the UMC—would not allow alcohol consumption under its roof. A few years later, the UMC sold the property; the new owner deconsecrated it and converted it to an events space. With plenty of booze.
A view of the Sunoco interior reveals another permitted vice:
Cigarettes, cigarillos, cigars. But this is probably the reality of an unlikely pairing of a church with gas/convenience. If Arlington Temple United Methodist had subjected its ground-level tenant to many of the restrictions imposed within the sanctuary, no franchisee would ever want to locate there. The physical form needs to accommodate the basic services one expects at a gas station, and, as tiny as the convenience/retail component may be, a customer at least expects to buy a candy bar, a can of coke or a pack of smokes. And the Sunoco under Arlington Temple offers more than that:
It has a hand wash/detailing service, as well as oil change and full auto repair. It’s a lot to pack under one roof. But that’s not the least of it: like many older churches with modest congregations, Arlington Temple United Methodist leases out its sanctuary to an entirely unrelated congregation: in this case, a Presbyterian Church ostensibly serving the local Korean American community. And, if the website is indication, Key Community Church holds its services entirely in Korean.
I’ll confess that, after further reflection, I’m not sure the flatiron massing to Arlington Temple is all that significant, and, over the course of writing this article, I’ve come to the conclusion that the building wouldn’t necessarily catch the eye at all if not for the gas station underneath. Arlington Temple is a testament to how escalating land values often force a creative admixture of land uses that otherwise might never happen. And, in this case, the fusion raises salient practical and spiritual questions. Does the congregation after experience wafting gas fumes during the sermons? Does religious music trickle down on Sundays to the patrons at the pumps? It may not matter much longer: a developer has purchased a huge portion of the block with the intention of an even grander mix of uses: two new residential high rises with retail, resulting in a complete redevelopment of the entire Arlington Temple parcel. It looks like the church on stilts may not be much longer for this earthly plane. But, as part of the deal, the developer will retain Arlington Temple in the massive new construction. And the gas station too!