The Washington D.C. Temple site’s history is as American as the capital city itself

The land survived two wars and more than a dozen different owners before housing the largest east-coast temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The designer of Radio City Music Hall and the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, a building praised by Frank Lloyd Wright as a once-in-a-century architectural achievement, received a curious invitation. In 1968, a member of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints approached Edward D. Stone about potentially designing the church’s soon-to-be-built Washington D.C. Temple.

Other architects were eventually hired, but Stone flew from New York City to walk the wooded land on the Kensington, Maryland, hilltop site. He was impressed. “This is one of the finest sites for a religious building I have ever seen,” he concluded.

The specific site selection for temples rarely garners the attention that accompanies a temple’s announcement or dedication. But in the case of the Washington D.C. Temple, the deal to purchase 57 acres of pristine woods overlooking the capital city in 1962 elicited a joyful surprise.

The land, known since the late 1600s as “Joseph’s Park,” passed through some 17 owners but remained largely untouched during its centuries of nearby human habitation. By the time the church sought to buy the land, it was within days of being sold to a developer who planned to construct a shopping mall and condominium complex. Brent Pratt, of the Foulger-Pratt Construction Co., which built the temple, is sometimes asked, “Who sited that building? It’s so prominent; it’s fabulous.” 

His response is always the same: “God sited it,” explaining how the land seemed to be preserved by providence for the purpose it serves today.

In April, thousands of visitors will descend on this site to walk through the recently renovated Washington D.C. Temple before its rededication in August. Many who have rounded the curve on the D.C. Beltway and seen the temple soar above the trees in front of them are eager to see inside the iconic building overlooking the nation’s capital. While the temple is well known, the lesser-known story of the land it occupies is a tale as American as the city is overlooks, weaving together a history that includes the pursuit of freedom of religion and the struggles that have formed and defined the United States of America.

The Washington D.C. Temple has been closed for extensive renovation since March 2018. In April 2022, thousands will visit the temple for an open house prior to its rededication. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The site which now houses the Washington D.C. Temple was first intermittently inhabited by Native Americans who had seasonal economies based on hunting and fishing. The land eventually came to be “owned” by more than a dozen different monarchs, lords, titans of industry and land speculators. Through every transition, the site remained largely undeveloped.   

The first European owner of the land was King James I of England, the sovereign who produced the most widely used English translation of the Bible, including by Latter-day Saints. The original Virginia colony claimed in 1607 by the king encompassed all of the present states of Maryland and Virginia, as well as a portion of Pennsylvania.

His son, King Charles I, succeeded James in 1625, becoming the second owner of the temple site. Charles, a protestant, counted among his friends prominent Catholics including George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore. Charles gave Calvert a vast tract of land including all of Maryland. The estate later fell to his son Cecilius, the second Lord Baltimore. Unlike nearly every other colony of that era, Maryland was founded on a firm and farsighted basis of religious toleration. For example, having fled from religious persecution on the Mayflower, the Puritans established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1620 where only their version of the Anglican Church was allowed to be preached and practiced.

The third Lord Baltimore Charles Calvert appointed Colonel William Joseph as the proprietary governor of Maryland and gave him 4,220 acres of land including the hill site of the future temple. 

The estate was known after its owner as “Joseph’s Park.”

Subsequent owners sold off portions of the property until wealthy merchant Daniel Carroll acquired 3,182 acres of Joseph’s Park in 1748 and built a house there. That began a new era for the property that intimately connected it with the founding of the United States of America because of the prominence of the Carroll family. Carroll’s son, Daniel II, inherited the land and the family became known as “the Carrolls of Rock Creek.” 

Daniel’s brother John — who built a chapel on the property below the hill — subsequently became the first Catholic bishop in America and founded Georgetown University.    

In late 1776, a new county, Montgomery, was created that covered all of western Maryland including Joseph’s Park. 

The sun shines on the snow covered ground of the Washington Monument in Washington on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010. | Cliff Owen, Associated Press

Carroll strode boldly forward during the Revolutionary War against England in 1777, propelling an illustrious two-decadeslong career of public service, first serving in the Maryland state government, the First Continental Congress and then and as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.        

From the passage of the Constitution, Carroll was committed to securing a Bill of Rights, which he felt was a serious omission. 

He was particularly ardent during the debate over the First Amendment, successfully proposing the wording of the amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion. As a member of a Catholic minority, he had feared that many delegates might push for a national church that would further discriminate against Catholics, Quakers, Jews and others.

The Joseph’s Park property eventually passed to Daniel’s grandson, William. He built a prominent home about a mile west of the future temple that he called “The Highlands” because of the surrounding hilly topography. Like most of Maryland’s farms, The Highlands estate for an unspecified time raised tobacco. Barrels of tobacco were rolled down the hills into Rock Creek, where they were floated to the state’s first river port, named Georgetown. Farmers knew nothing about crop rotation nor that tobacco, nearly more than any other cash crop, depleted the soil’s nutrients. Eventually, frustrated with the worn-out soil, many farmers moved west to more fertile fields in Kentucky and other new territories.

During the Civil War, Alfred Ray bought the struggling farm. He was mistakenly jailed as a Confederate sympathizer in 1864 and while he was incarcerated, Confederate Gen. Jubal Early took advantage of the owner’s absence and occupied the large Highlands farm. The troops spread their tents over the spacious lawn and raided Ray’s gardens. Yet, in spite of several Civil War battles and bloody raids in Maryland, no blood was ever shed in battle on the future temple site, either during the Revolutionary War or the Civil War. Also, while much of the capital area was denuded of its forests because the Union Army needed wood, the temple site at the edge of the Highlands property was never subject to clear cutting, so the old-growth forest was preserved.

Ray was a religious man, and through good times and hard times he would ride to the edge of his property, get off his horse and kneel down to pray in the woods. It was a place that exuded such a special feeling that he took his granddaughter Edith to the spot and solemnly pronounced that it was “holy ground.” Many years later, she would tell a friend that her grandfather’s “holy place” was in fact the spot upon which the Washington D.C. Temple was built.

The death of Ray in 1895 led to a brief period of disrepair for the estate until it was purchased by wealthy Washington D.C. banker Clarence Moore around 1900. He and his wife, heiress to the Swift family meatpacking fortune, built a baronial mansion in downtown D.C. that subsequently served for a time as the embassy of Canada. But Moore’s heart was tied to the Highlands, which he renamed Rock Creek Farm, and transformed into a showplace of white board fences, open spaces, horses, cattle and foxhounds. Intent on turning his estate into a hunt club, Moore traveled to England in 1912 to buy 50 high‑quality hounds. 

Tragically, he chose the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic for his return to the United States.    

On the fateful evening of April 14, 1912, when the Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic, Moore was enjoying an after-dinner cigar in the first class smoking room with good friend Maj. Archie Butt, President William Howard Taft’s military aide. Moore and Butt rushed to assist women and children into the lifeboats. The two men repeatedly refused to take a space offered them by the crew in the boats. They were last seen jumping together into the icy waters after the boilers of the giant ship burst. 

This image provided by the New York Times shows its April 16, 1912, front page coverage of the Titanic disaster. The largest ship afloat at the time, the Titanic sank in the north Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912, after colliding with an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. | The New York Times, Associated Press

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Moore’s widow had no heart to keep the estate, but Moore’s will decreed that it could not be sold until the youngest children were “of age.” The 300 acres once known as Joseph’s Park were finally sold in 1929 to the Continental Life Insurance Co. for an ambitious housing development.

At the time, Montgomery County was on the cusp of a land boom. Between 1940 and 1950, the county’s population nearly doubled, jumping from 84,000 to 164,000, and Continental Life’s coffers bulged with their development abutting the temple site called Rock Creek Hills. Inexplicably, the company never developed the 57 acres of old‑growth forest at the eastern edge of the property. Instead, they sold that site in 1950 to Metro Land and Growth Investments Inc., a syndicate of investors.

Intending to cash in on their investment a dozen years later, Metro Land’s owners sold an option for the purchase of the site in 1962 to a well‑known local developer. Thus, that beautiful piece of forest property that had been preserved in pristine condition for centuries was literally within days of becoming the site for a shopping mall and high‑rise apartment complex. 

Then something strange occurred.

One evening in early September 1962, the Milan Smith family gathered around the dinner table. Smith, the president of the Washington D.C. Stake, had made it a priority to lobby church leadership for a temple in the Washington, D.C., area, and to search for a suitable property. With his children watching wide-eyed, he reached into his briefcase that evening and pulled out a six‑figure check with his name on it. Smith passed it around the table so all of his family could examine the valuable piece of paper. Ten‑year‑old son Gordon Smith (later a congressman from Oregon) never forgot the moment. ”In my little boy eyes, it was like, ‘Wow, we’re rich!’”

Milan Smith quickly put that idea to rest.

The check had his name on it, but it was church money for a down payment on a temple site. It was not an unusual practice for church representatives to disguise their interest in a property during the negotiation process by keeping the money in private hands. If a seller knew the buyer had deep pockets, they might raise the price, or prejudice against the church could get in the way of fair negotiations.

Incredibly, though, when the church’s involvement was finally revealed in the negotiations for the Washington D.C. Temple site, not only did the principals of Metro Land — three Jewish men — highly favor the sale but they lowered their price out of respect and solidarity between two groups who were persecuted for their religious beliefs.

The principal owners were Morris Kanfer, Stanley Rosensweig and David Bazelon. Bazelon was the youngest of 10 children whose Russian Jewish parents immigrated ahead of pogroms in Belarus and settled in Chicago. He became a lawyer and moved to Washington to serve in the Justice Department in the Harry Truman administration. The feeling of antisemitic discrimination was never far from the Bazelons, even in Washington. David’s wife, Miriam (“Mickey”), found a furnished house for rent in the northwest neighborhood of Spring Valley. But a friend told her the development had a restrictive covenant reading: “No Negroes, southern Europeans, or Jews.”

Mickey, who would become a prominent child‑welfare activist, including serving on the founding staff of Head Start, wrote: “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe a family that was giving up quite a lot to do public service wasn’t good enough to live in certain areas of Washington.”      

As a counterpoint to that insult, three years into the Bazelons’ Washington life, Truman appointed David Bazelon to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., making him, at 40, not only the youngest man ever named to the federal appellate bench but also the first Jewish judge on a court of appeals.

Rosensweig was an entrepreneur, owner of a chain of electrical appliance distributors and a real estate investor. On the side, he co-founded the St. Louis Blues National Hockey League team. Kanfer was a practicing attorney who had emigrated as an infant from the Prussian region of Germany. The men varied in their degree of “observance,” but they all identified deeply with their Jewish heritage, and were generous supporters of Jewish and Zionist causes.

They bought the Joseph’s Park property as an investment under the Metro Land umbrella and left it undeveloped for a dozen years. Kanfer was given the task of finding a buyer and he had managed to nail down a gold-plated prospect who planned to build a shopping center including a supermarket, a commercial high‑rise building and townhouses on the 57 acres.

But one of the neighbors of the property also had his eye on it. Robert Barker was a counselor to Milan Smith in the Washington D.C. Stake presidency. He was a lawyer, and the church had asked him to take the lead on negotiations for a temple site. For years Barker had thought the undeveloped land behind his house was a perfect spot for a temple. When the church zeroed in on the site, Barker called Kanfer, fellow attorney and personal acquaintance. 

“It’s not for sale, Bob,” Kanfer said. ”We’ve got a great offer and we’re closing on it soon.”

Barker was undeterred. He called Kanfer twice more over the next week. On the third call, a clearly irritated Kanfer told him not to bother him again. Quick on his feet, Barker said he was willing to do that, but only if he could treat Morris for lunch to discuss the property one last time. Morris reluctantly agreed.

Barker and Milan Smith had a pre‑meeting phone call with Hugh B. Brown, of the First Presidency, in Salt Lake City for final instructions. They counseled together and decided against identifying the church as the buyer, and Barker was authorized to go as high as $16,000 an acre.

When Barker woke up on the morning of Sept. 24, 1962, he was troubled about his prospects. He prayed and received spiritual confirmation that he was negotiating to build a sacred House to God, and he should reveal that to Kanfer, contrary to the standard practice. Barker also knew from his prayer that he could not approach Kanfer as a fellow lawyer; it had to be personal. 

Before their food arrived, Barker told Morris he was representing the church. It was probably no surprise to Kanfer; he knew that Barker was a Latter-day Saint. But what made Kanfer sit up and pay closer attention was Barker’s statement that the church wanted to buy the land to build a temple. The word seemed to stir Kanfer’s soul. Barker extolled the great temple-building tradition of the Hebrews. He explained that the concept of the modern Latter-day Saint temple originated with Moses’ tabernacle in the wilderness and from later temples in Jerusalem. ”We are truly grateful to you and your people for the great sacrifice and spirituality of your ancestors to construct those ancient holy places which we (Latter-day Saints) honor and build upon today,” Barker shared, sincerely.

Instead of lawyer to lawyer, the discussion became a heart-to-heart between adherents of two faiths with histories and beliefs. Kanfer learned about the Latter-day Saints, including the early history of persecution which had cost the life of the church’s founder and pushed its members from state to state until they found respite in Utah. While it couldn’t compare to the centurieslong pogroms against Jews, including the Holocaust, Kanfer empathized with the minority faith.

Barker promised that the temple built on Metro Land’s 57 acres would be a beautiful monument to God in a city of monuments. What struck the most responsive chord with Kanfer was Barker’s simple statement that the primary purpose of the Latter-day Saint temple was to unite families eternally with God.

By the end of the lunch he agreed to take the offer to his partners. Two hours later, he called Barker and said that his partners had agreed to the sale. During the lunch, Kanfer had mentioned to Barker that the competing bidder had offered $15,000 an acre for the 57-acre site. Barker indicated that the church might be willing to match that. But in the phone call Kanfer said, “We’ve decided we’re going to sell it to you for $14,000 an acre. Consider that $57,000 discount our donation for building the temple.” In return for $803,782 (equivalent to $7 million in today’s dollars), Metro Land conveyed 57.413 acres west of Stoneybrook Drive to the church on Oct. 30, 1962.

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The three partners never regretted the 1962 sale nor their generous discount. Kanfer even visited the site when the temple was under construction and declared, “That is my temple.”

A longtime D.C. real estate agent later spoke with the Latter-day Saint landscaper working on the site and asked: “How did the Mormon Church ever come to get this property,” noting how others had sought after it. “How did you do it?” 

For the Latter-day Saints involved, the answer was simple: It was meant to be.

Dale Van Atta is a best-selling author based in Washington D.C. He began his career as an investigative reporter for the Deseret News. His most recent book is Washington D.C. Temple: Divine by Design, from which this essay is adapted.

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