Congregation to sell landmark church Growth prompts New Psalmist move

October 12, 1992|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

Because of the dramatic growth of a large congregation that (( replaced a sharply declining one, a distinctive architectural landmark in downtown Baltimore -- the Gothic Revival church at Franklin and Cathedral streets -- soon will be for sale for the second time.

New Psalmist Baptist Church, which has worshiped in the 145-year-old Tudor-style building since 1978, plans to construct a much larger sanctuary complex on the nearly 20 acres it owns in Southwest Baltimore. The old Franklin Street building can accommodate about 1,000 worshipers.

At the old church yesterday, the Rev. Walter S. Thomas, New Psalmist's pastor, introduced members of the congregation to the man selected to design the new building, Columbia architect Bernard Madison.

Mr. Thomas said that the site is the former Uplands estate in the 4500 block of Old Frederick Road, and that the building will combine modern and traditional elements.

"You will definitely know it is a church," he said.

Architect's sketches are due in about a month, the pastor added.

Groundbreaking is planned for next fall, and Jan. 1, 1995, is the target for the move. A purchaser of the present church -- where the former Franklin Street Presbyterian congregation had worshiped for nearly 130 years -- would not be able to take it over until the move.

Mr. Thomas said there were "no negative reasons" for New Psalmist's decision to sell the historic Franklin Street building along with two other properties it owns in the 500 block of Cathedral Street.

Neither crime nor parking problems drove the congregation out of downtown, he said. In fact, he said, parking in the area has never been a problem for the church's large membership on Sunday mornings.

The sole reason for the move, the pastor said, is the rapid growth of the New Psalmist congregation. When it moved to Franklin Street from North and Druid Hill avenues on Jan. 1, 1978, it had 500 members. Now, it has an active membership of 3,000, he said. Members live in all parts of Baltimore and nearby counties and as far away as southern Pennsylvania and northern Virginia.

The decline in numbers and financial strength of the old Presbyterian congregation was almost as sharp. The original Franklin Street church and First Presbyterian Church at Madison Street and Park Avenue merged in 1973. The decision to put the Franklin Street property up for sale was made by the combined Presbyterian congregations in 1976.

New Psalmist Baptist's purchase of the church the following year meant that a growing, mostly black congregation was acquiring the historic church of a declining, mostly white one. It was part of a trend incities across the nation.

The Franklin Street church is considered a masterpiece of the early 19th century architect, Robert Cary Long Jr.

It is on the National Register of Historic Places, which means it is eligible for federal preservation funds and may not be razed or altered for a project receiving federal money without a special hearing.

New Psalmist's acquisition of the Uplands property in 1985 also meant the transfer of a declining, mostly white religious institution to a thriving, mostly black one.

The wooded grounds and 42-room Victorian mansion, summer home of the late Mary Frick Garrett Jacobs, were left to the Episcopal Church upon her death in 1936. From 1952 to 1986, the estate was operated as the Uplands Home for Church Women, a residence for elderly Episcopalians. The New Psalmist Christian School opened there in September of 1986. Mr. Thomas said the estate also is used as a retreat center for New Psalmist Baptist Church.

Mr. Thomas said that every effort will be made to save at least some of the old buildings on the Uplands property, but final decisions have not been made.

Plans call for construction of parking spaces for at least 500 cars, he said.

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