10-year project restores St. John's, Huntingdon, to its neo-Gothic beauty

October 20, 1991|By Lynn Williams

In her memoirs, Baltimore poet Lizette Reese wrote lyrically about her church, St. John's, Huntingdon. She discussed the fashionable ladies who attended services dressed in hoop skirts and carrying frilly parasols, and the gypsy women who lived in the nearby woods and brought their babies to St. John's to be baptized. She described the pews, the chancel rail and the brilliant stained-glass windows with their stern-looking saints.

The woods, the gypsy camp and the parasols are long gone, and Huntingdon, a rustic village lying near the Baltimore city line, became the neighborhood of Waverly more than 100 years ago.

But Miss Reese, who died in 1935 and lies in the Episcopal church's tidy graveyard, would be pleased to know that much of what she loved about St. John's is still bringing joy to its parishioners. Thanks to an ambitious 10-year restoration project initiated by the church's former rector, the Rev. R. Douglas Pitt, the Gothic revival gem has regained its luster. Fund-raising projects such as the annual Huntingdon Antiques Show and Sale, set next weekend (see box), have provided the church with everything from air conditioning to statuary, and ensure that work will continue on the Victorian-era landmark, its rectory and parish hall.

The first St. John's was built in 1847 on the site of a Revolutionary War barracks, but burned down less than 10 years later. Work began immediately on a new church, which was consecrated in 1860 (when Lizette Reese was 4 years old). It was the work of architect John Priest and his apprentice Henry Martyn Congdon, who took over the business when his mentor died. Mr. Congdon, a master of the Gothic style, was responsible for the expansion of the church in the 1870s.

Built of dark stone and brick, with arched lancet windows, stone buttresses and a magnificent vaulted ceiling with wooden arches, St. John's had retained its architectural splendor when Mr. Pitt took over as rector. But it had become undeniably dingy. Layers of paint, dirt and candle smoke had obscured the original Gothic decoration. And worse, time and the elements had made inroads on the structural integrity of the building.

One of the first projects was a symbolic one: the restoration of the "chime" of 11 bells, whose ringing mechanism had been broken for years. The bells can now be played from a console inside the church, and their sound soars out over the neighborhood, inviting members and guests to worship.

The drive to restore the church's interior got under way in 1983.

"We had all this evidence that there had been beauty here," Mr. Pitt says. "We had old pictures of the choir, taken around the turn of the century, that showed that there was high Victorian decoration in the chancel."

Mr. Pitt didn't have the heart to just slap on another coat of paint. This was, after all, a historic building, listed on the National Register of

Historic Places since 1974. So he rounded up a group of artisans to discover, and to restore, the original ornamentation of the walls.

"The right people were all available at the right time," Mr. Pitt says. "The money appeared from friends and congregation, and the whole thing came together."

Photographs of the St. John's interior can be deceiving. The walls seem to be made of blocks of stone, in shades of beige, gold and brown. Actually, the "stonework" is a faux technique called "ashlaring," which was popular in the last century to give plaster walls that medieval cathedral look.

Janet Pope, an expert in the restoration of wall treatments, was responsible for the re-creation of the Gothic frescoes in the chancel. Under layers of paint and dark lacquer she discovered a profusion of opulent detailing: Around the stained glass window are garlands of grapevines and wheat sheaves, representing the wine and bread of the sacrament. The walls are patterned with gilded fleurs-de-lis, a symbol of the Virgin Mary, and the ceiling has an eagle motif in honor of St. John the evangelist.

Now glowing with color, the painted walls draw attention to the chancel's other treasures, such as the Minton tiles and the carved English oak altarpiece.

"The church owns a book which has helped in many, many instances in doing the church over," Mr. Pitt says. "It was put out in England in the middle of the 19th century, showing what Victorian revival Gothic churches ought to look like inside, with all the appointments and every detail. Obviously they had

it and knew what they were doing when they built the church. The big candlesticks on the altar are taken right out of that book, for instance. So we have taken things out of it, too."

The brass rail for the new Lady chapel, for instance, uses a trefoil motif illustrated in the book, and the altar cloths were woven by Watts and Co., a British company that is still producing the textiles it made more than a century ago.

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