Performer made old St. Michael's into home and rehearsal studio


January 27, 1991|By Lynn Williams

W hen strangers show up on Rick Schnitker's doorstep, they are not necessarily in search of Mr. Schnitker or his performing talents. They might be looking for commodities that the young juggler-acrobat-comedian cannot, alas, provide. Pierogis. And spiritual guidance.

It's easy to be fooled, though. For the better part of the 20th century, the building that Mr. Schnitker calls home provided both to its Fells Point congregation. And passersby might not even notice that anything has changed at the former St. Michael's Ukrainian Catholic Church.

The classically proportioned brick facade and fanlighted windows are still dignified, the gold-domed bell tower is still topped by an imposing cross. During the holiday season, when the door and windows were decorated with red-bowed wreaths, the building looked ready to welcome worshipers in for a midnight carol service.

But take a close look at the wrought-iron gate. On top, where an iron cross used to perch, stands a trio of brass juggling pins.

One step inside, the would-be worshiper would know he's in the wrong place. The interior, which includes both living space and a performance studio, is strikingly contemporary, boldly black and white and indubitably secular. It is a reflection of the tastes and creativity of its owners, Mr. Schnitker and his performing partner Mardene Rubio, and of the architects who gave it its new look, S. Kent Dunn and Daniel Levin of Arc Studios.

In their show, Variety in Motion, Ms. Rubio and Mr. Schnitker ride unicycles, juggle machetes while standing on an unsupported ladder and perform all sorts of new vaudeville-style routines accompanied by dancing and fast-paced comic patter. But don't assume that the lively pair, with their matching shag haircuts and assorted earrings, are carefree bohemians who live on the spare change audiences toss into their hat. They may have started on the sidewalks of Harborplace (where they still perform on occasion), but success on the international festival and college circuit has brought some very un-bohemian concerns: equity and investments, for instance.

A friend, a clown named Bounce, suggested that they invest in real estate for its tax advantages and as a source of income for future, post-performing, business ventures. So the partners bought an apartment house in Hamilton, which Mr. Schnitker manages.

Initially, the church did not attract their notice as an investment, but as a gym. Variety in Motion's demanding routines call for plenty of daily practice, and the church has all the high-ceiling, wood-floored expansiveness a team of active acrobats needs.

"We used to work out in a church, St. Luke's Church on Harford Road," Mr. Schnitker explains. "We always had to schedule things, and we'd have to leave when the Boy Scouts showed up."

"Or the basketball team," adds Ms. Rubio, who lives in Waverly.

"We used to say, 'Man, wouldn't it be great to have our own place to work out in?' " her partner continues.

The performers looked for years for a loft, preferably in Fells Point or Federal Hill. They even considered buying a warehouse and gutting it.

Then one day they saw an advertisement: "Ukrainian Church for Sale." The St. Michael's congregation was moving into an elaborately onion-domed new building, and leaving its turn-of-the-century brick church behind.

"It was a regular church at the time, an in-service church with pews, candles, everything," Mr. Schnitker says. "There was a huge crystal chandelier. It was breathtaking."

So was the price. The pair figured they could never afford the cost of buying and remodeling the building, and immediately took off on a six-month performing tour of Canada and Australia. In Australia, they ate in a restaurant which had once been a church very similar to St. Michael's. Regretting that they had given up the chance to own such a perfect space, they decided that if it was still for sale when they returned they would try to buy it.

Back in Baltimore, they discovered that a developer's bid to turn the church into condominiums had fallen through, and that the price had dropped. They made an even lower offer, and after a bit of haggling, bought the church. The valuable stained-glass windows, which had been made in Europe, were not part of the deal, but the partners found that many of the church's fixtures, including pews, robes, candles, a chalice and a huge oil painting of the crucified Christ had been left in their hands. They even found a collection plate with money in it.

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