Berea Temple campaigning for $2 million renovation

Jacques Kelly

March 05, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

A pair of tall granite minarets appeared on the northwest Baltimore skyline exactly 100 years ago. These towers are part of the monumental Berea Temple, a house of prayer built of granite from Port Deposit and Woodstock, Patapsco River clay and Ohio sandstone. It is filled with stained-glass windows in the shape of the Star of David, mosaic floors, carved oak pews and a white marble pulpit.

Is it old Byzantium -- or Toledo, Spain -- at Madison Avenue and Robert Street? Whatever, after a century of hard service, the temple can easily use $2 million worth of restoration.

"We're a working congregation, a modest congregation of limited means. We don't want to leave our home," said Charles W. Breese, a lifelong Berea Temple member who is heading the restoration campaign.

Breese remembers the day the Madison Avenue building was purchased in 1951. He was then in high school and serving as the sexton of the old Berea Temple at Harlem Avenue and Dolphin Street. "When we came here, I lost that job. I was told this building was too much upkeep for a teen-ager," he said.

The restoration campaign began with donations from members of this Seventh-day Adventist congregation. Breese also has taken the cause to the Maryland Historic Trust, the General Assembly and, in an interesting turn, to the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, whose members built the temple in 1891 and moved to a new synagogue on Park Heights Avenue 60 years later.

Breese's committee has retained local architects Kann & Ammon. Their report says the massive stone walls need repointing, the great dome and towers need new roofs, the stained glass needs immediate attention. After that is done, attention can be turned to the building's interior, which needs painting, and to the original pipe organ, which needs restoring. Last year, about 40 tons of pigeon dung was cleaned out of the minarets.

"While most congregations of the day could hardly afford one stone steeple, this temple sported two granite towers and a massive vaulted dome," said Roger Katzenberg, the architect advising Berea on the restoration.

"There have been weeks and hours of education, deliberation and intimidation to convince the congregation this was the right route to go," Breese said.

About 60 percent of Berea's 922 congregants live in the city. There was once even some consideration to selling the temple to Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., whose adjoining exchange building at Lafayette and Madison avenues needed a parking lot. It didn't happen.

Breese says his fellow parishioners are a settled group, who quietly do much community service. They go into prisons and work with convicts to help ease the transition to freedom. They feed 250 people a week at a soup kitchen. Their Pathfinders group works with neighborhood youths. And as a part of the Seventh-day Adventist faith, they promote community health programs.

Berea bought the temple in 1951 for $75,000 from the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. The building's interior contains many symbols of Judaism -- the Star of David appears in stained-glass panels and on the marble pulpit -- and they have never been removed. (Seventh-day Adventists adhere to a Friday sundown-to-Saturday sundown Sabbath.)

When the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was located at Berea, the Torah was housed in the Ark made of quartered oak and fashioned after a Moorish shrine in Toledo, Spain. When the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation left the building, the place where the sacred scrolls rested was curtained off and now serves as a baptismal area.

As the late winter sun sets in the west, the blue and pink rays cast a marvelous light over Berea. The old minarets and the dome outline the sky. It's quite a sight.

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