The National City Christian Church (NCCC) is known as the National Cathedral for the Disciples of Christ denomination in the US capital city of Washington, D.C. The sanctuary has a rich history dating back to its inception in 1930, when the building was commissioned under the design of John Russell Pope architects. Nearly 80 years prior, Disciples of Christ co-founder Alexander Campbell envisioned a sanctuary that was the largest meeting house in D.C. to serve the community in “the presence of kings and earth’s nobility.”
Since this multicultural congregation in the heart of the city has grown very diverse, the church leaders felt they needed the sanctuary to support a broader range of music and worship styles. They also recognized that this must be done without adversely impacting the uplifting original architecture. The neoclassical design features numerous coiffeurs, arches, and columns, including a large half-dome over the chancel. These features enhance choral singing, classical-based performances, and music from the grand 7,500+ pipe dual-gallery organ.
The upgrade of technical systems in the sanctuary was planned to coincide with much-needed architectural repairs. Drains from the roof were blocked beneath the building and water was backing up into pipes hidden within walls. The entire room is finished in plaster, which began to flake off in numerous places.
NCCC hired Gardner, Spencer, Smith, Tench, and Hensley architects (Atlanta, GA) to oversee the construction effort and serve as architectural consultant on the project. To ensure sound and video systems were properly implemented, GSSTH engaged EDI, Ltd. (Atlanta, GA) to provide the technical leadership on the project, serving as audio-visual and acoustical consultant. After a qualifications-based RFP process, Wavecrest Systems (Leesburg, VA) was selected to provide a turnkey integration solution. Both the principal architect and AV consultant had a personal stake in the project’s success, as they are active members of Peachtree Christian Church, a Disciples of Christ congregation in Atlanta.
The team took to the challenging task of implementing modern audio and video systems into this unique and significant sanctuary with much enthusiasm. The long reverberation time of the sanctuary, while excellent for choral, organ, and traditional music, is poorly suited to speech and higher-energy worship. The existing pew-back speaker system could only support the human speech range; piping music through this system revealed dismal results. Moreover, the architectural design could not be altered, and the large, detailed chancel dome could not be obscured with a central loudspeaker cluster.
Locating loudspeakers in the room was perhaps the most debated issue throughout the project. In fact, the final mounting of speakers was not settled until two weeks before the installation deadline. The initial design perspective sought after a central cluster solution that would be aesthetically pleasing. Research revealed that about 8′ of catwalk space was available behind the top lip of the dome, a possible recessed central cluster position high above the floor. After further review it was determined that the cluster would need to project from the chancel dome facade and a very expensive lift mechanism would be required for easy access to the cluster. Although a central cluster arrangement would have been the most elegant technical solution to meet the Church’s needs, respecting the architecture of the facility was too difficult and expensive with this approach.
It was about this time that the Church assigned EDI to perform a 3D acoustical model analysis of the space to determine the best approach for loudspeaker placement. Two common opposing forces were at odds: the Church’s desire for high-energy worship and gospel music, and the need for discrete, visually-pleasing loudspeakers to accomplish the task. It should be noted that as in many churches migrating slowly to incorporate contemporary services, the team had to respect the well-established contemporary services in place. NCCC was perhaps even more distinctive, because weekly Thursday afternoon classical performances are carried out faithfully in addition to the traditional Sunday services. The facility has a long history of supporting classical music.
A distributed monaural speaker system was proposed by the team to work within the acoustical limitations of the facility. This approach was confirmed within the acoustical model, in addition to on-site measurements which revealed that the “critical distance” was less than 50 feet at most seats in the sanctuary. The critical distance is the point at which the direct sound level from any source such as the pastor’s voice or a loudspeaker is equal to the reverberant energy bounced off room surfaces. Beyond this distance, a worshipper would have a difficult time localizing any sound source. This led to a pair of main front loudspeakers, two delayed pairs of speakers for the main floor, and a delayed pair for the balcony. Each “pair” split coverage into left and right seating areas in a controlled directivity pattern. Every seat was ensured adequate direct-field sound by the placement of the speakers, which was coordinated with the architectural columns in the space to minimize visual impact.
Wavecrest generously arranged for an on-site demonstration of the Renkus-Heinz loudspeaker systems. This scaled-down mock-up was very worthwhile to the owner. Pastor Dr. Alvin Jackson was able to walk the room, listening to speech and program music sources to get the feel of the proposed loudspeakers before final purchase was made. The predictions of the acoustical model could also be heard as listeners walked into and out of the coverage areas.
As the loudspeakers were the most visible new components, fit and finish was a primary concern. Again, Wavecrest’s attention to detail and communication skills in the fabrication process was essential. The contractor quickly found out that mounting the speakers was a challenge.
The initial direction was to mount the speakers from a custom adjustable “arm” that would be strapped to the steel beam inside the finished columns. Instead of ripping apart the original column, Josh Thompson, Wavecrest Director and Operations Manager, ordered a small hole be drilled into one column and a gooseneck camera inserted to investigate inside. This revealed a complex structure that would be impossible to preserve when mounting the speakers. In the original construction of 1930, terra cotta clay pipe surrounds were used to fire-proof the steel inside. Terra cotta is much too fragile to drill and would not support the weight of the loudspeakers. In the final design, speakers were hung from thin “aircraft cable” which provided structural integrity and aiming flexibility. The support wires were painted to match and disappeared into the ceiling where they hung from custom mounts that spanned the structural steel column headers. The final result was both audibly superior and as visually discreet.
Video systems were not forgotten, either. Video projection was not a requirement for the facility, but video origination using multiple cameras for live feeds and recording was a high priority. The team chose a high-quality, pan/tilt/zoom, small speed-dome style closed circuit television system to meet this need. Wavecrest hired a very skilled plaster subcontractor to blend in a few of these cameras into the architectural design. The most challenging camera to install was located at the center of the balcony, which incorporated a custom rounded trim designed to match the overhead facade above the rear organ pipes. The upper balcony camera fit snugly into a soffit corner and required a 2′ drill bit to achieve cable access through layers of plaster and wood supports. All cameras were cleverly concealed within the architecture, while providing the necessary coverage and angles that the owner desired.
A complete overhaul of the mixing console area was also in order. Chris Green, Wavecrest VP of Engineering, designed a very functional dual-tier mixing platform in the balcony that fit in a very tight space and allowed access to the balcony stair. The lower level accommodates the sound engineer, with the console, audio monitors, and an 8-scene lighting controller in front. Immediately behind the operator, all of the other audio gear such as effects and program sources is located. This equipment is mounted in a cabinet with roll-down doors for security, and the cabinet top supports the lighting console. Sixteen inches above the sound operator is the lighting operator’s platform, where the large lighting console can be operated with clear view of the room. New lighting systems were planned and designed for over a year by Grenald Waldren associates of Philadelphia, another consultant hired by GSSTH.
The team made use of CobraNet audio-over-Ethernet technology for a few key interconnections. The microphone lines are split from the sound console in the balcony then run over CobraNet to the recording room where they fan back out into the digital multitrack recording system. This technology was also used to add 8 microphone inputs to a portable stage box at the chancel area. And finally, CobraNet was also utilized to move the system amplification into a dedicated closet, shortening the speaker lines for the new loudspeakers. Perhaps the main benefit of using this technology was the minimal wiring required to route multiple channels of audio in the facility. Again, due to the age of the building, routing large cable snakes or conduit raceways was impossible in some locations.
NCCC had been using the recording room on the lower level for many years. This room served double-duty, both recording and duplicating services as well as acting as a control room for the adjacent choir and music studio. Some antiquated equipment and a less-than-optimal layout required a complete rework and systems upgrade. The end result was fabulous. Again, in a tight space the team was able to provide new, modern recording and monitoring equipment in a more functional layout. New systems included digital multitrack audio recording and mixing, video mixing and recording of the new camera systems, and a streaming audio/video system for multicasting services onto the Internet.
For a complicated overhaul such as this, it was important that the proper team of professionals be organized to service the owner using a streamlined approach. Weekly conference calls kept the church board members and design team abreast of developments within areas of design, planning, and construction. By using a design and consulting team to oversee the design/build construction, the owner realized time and money savings in the very fast construction schedule. Planning up front allowed for nearly all of the on-site rough and finish construction work to be achieved in about 2 weeks. The National City staff and volunteers have enjoyed exploring the new systems since they were unveiled on Palm Sunday of this year. The early Sunday service is now called “Catch The Spirit! LIVE at National City” and features touring gospel groups and increased congregational singing. With a solid infrastructure and flexible systems in place, the church continues to look forward to new the challenges and joys of expanding its inclusive, evangelical vision through worship.