The rectory near the corner of Saratoga and Cathedral streets, known as the "parsonage on the hill," boasted the highest elevation in Baltimore when it was built in 1791. Its 18th century residents had a clear view of the harbor and not the slightest inkling that one day the grand home of the rector of St. Paul's Church would be dwarfed by towers of steel and edged by yards of cement and concrete.
"You know," says Stiles Colwill, partner in Colwill and McGehee, an antiques shop and design firm specializing in period restorations, "the really unique thing about this house is that it is still here, that it has managed to survive as a residence for nearly 200 years."
Its elegant neighbors have long gone. To the east, the John Hopkins mansion was torn down in the 1930s to make room for a parking lot. To the west, the A. S. Abell house was demolished in 1883 when Cathedral Street was created. In fact, fewer than 1 percent of the houses on the Baltimore City tax roll of 1798 still stand today.
But the rectory has remained, housing all but one of the nine succeeding rectors of St. Paul's Church since the Rev. Joseph Bend took up occupancy in 1791. Every so many years, additions and adaptations were incorporated as the house was molded to fit the needs of the assorted families who lived under its roof and to keep up with two centuries of changing fashions.
Then in 1986, the current rector of St. Paul's Church, the Rev. William McKeachie, moved his family to a more residential setting in northern Baltimore City, and the vestry of the church negotiated a 30-year lease with Preservation Maryland, a non-profit, statewide organization dedicated to historic architectural preservation. Preservation Maryland not only found a permanent home, but the rectory gained a benefactor devoted to restoring it both structurally and cosmetically.
Preservation Maryland created Friends of the Rectory, a board charged with overseeing the exterior and interior restoration of the house. The rectory was constructed -- probably without the benefit of an architect -- in a Georgian country house design most likely taken from pattern books of the late 1700s. But the building underwent major remodeling and renovation, including the addition of several rooms, from 1828 to 1829. The decision was made to keep the facade as it had been in 1791, but to restore the interior to the neoclassical style of the 1820s, a project that was completed in 1989.
"There were several reasons for this choice," says Whitney Forsyth, director of public affairs for Preservation Maryland. "First, the mantels and much of the original woodwork and trim had been replaced and updated during the 1829 renovation, so we decided to stick with what was here rather than regress back to 1791. Plus, there wasn't another example of a home designed with neoclassical interiors in Baltimore. Homewood has just been completed with 18th century interiors, and we didn't want to duplicate that. And we really didn't have the money to do anything that expensive," she adds.
As it was, even with furniture loans from the Maryland Historical Society, gifts from the Colonial Dames of America, Chapter 1, and private donations, the restoration cost about $900,000. That's about $898,000 more than funds raised by a lottery in 1789 to begin building the main house on a "half acre and 28 square pecks" of property donated to the vestry of St. Paul's Parish by Revolutionary War hero John Eager Howard. Howard had inherited 200 acres of land, of which this small parcel was a part, from his great grandfather George Eager, who bought the property in 1688 for 5,000 pounds of tobacco.
The house was built to make a statement, says Anne Neikirk, co-chairman with Virginia Mosis of the Junior League of Baltimore's Rectory Committee. Her group recently completed three years of researching the history of the building and creating a docent program. "After the Revolutionary War, the Episcopal Church was trying to shake off its ties to the Church of England and to compete with other local churches," she continues. "The vestry wanted to build a new church, but they didn't have the money. So, they decided to build a very distinguished rectory on a very prominent piece of land."
As prominent as the site was in 1791, Baltimoreans today often bustle right by the wrought-iron gates of the mansion, not looking up to gaze at the landscaped lawn and the lovely old brick facade with its second-floor 1791 Palladian window. "It's amazing how many people on the tour," says Ms. Neikirk, "say they never even knew the house was here."