Miracle on Orchard Street New headquarters for Urban League preserves 19th-century building while expressing 20th-century goals

November 22, 1992|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

In the field of preservation, as in politics, the watchwords for the '90s are multiculturalism and diversity.

Across the nation, more and more "minority" groups are taking the lead in preserving the historic structures that have served them socially and spiritually while making America a rich tapestry of ethnic enclaves.

No project in the country epitomizes this movement toward pluralism better than one just completed in Maryland: the $3.7 million transformation of the Orchard Street Church to a new headquarters for the Baltimore Urban League.

In many ways this conversion exemplifies multiculturalism in preservation: an interracial social services organization working to empower itself and the community it serves by moving from leased space to its own landmark building, and joining forces with designers and craftspeople of all races and creeds to turn its dream to reality.

But what really makes the league's achievement so spectacular is the building it chose as its symbol of progress and the painstaking way it was restored. The church was built in 1882 at 510 Orchard St., the former site of one of Maryland's first African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churches. The third church built by the same congregation, it contains a joyous and lyrical worship space, designed at the height of the Victorian era.

Though badly damaged by 17 years of neglect, the church still contained plenty of details for architects and contractors to work with, and they took full advantage of it. Unlike some restorers who wipe away a building's patina of history, this team kept the faith and stayed true to the original spirit of the church in every phase of construction.

Just as important in an age of Mickey Mouse theme parks and Hollywood docudramas, this is the real thing, not some half-baked version of history. Wood was replaced with wood, and plaster replaced plaster, not a hollow, synthetic facsimile. Colors not only provide a visual feast, but are also historically accurate.

Brought back to its former glory, Orchard Street stands as a reminder of what can be done with modern technology to save old buildings, even when they seem too far gone to salvage. It should make public officials think twice before they let another historic structure come down for anything as devoid of cultural significance as a parking lot.

Orchard Street Church also stands as a testament to the importance of historic preservation for minority groups in search of genuine links with their past, and a touchstone for anyone interested in learning about the African-American experience. It is as powerful and poignant as ever, a true miracle on Orchard Street.

Orchard Street Church is actually two projects in one: restoration of the 1882 church, originally designed by Frank Davis, for use as a cultural museum, and conversion of an adjacent 1903 Sunday school, designed by Francis Tormey, to new headquarters for the Baltimore Urban League. About 40 league employees moved into their new space last month, and restoration of the church was completed at the same time. The museum itself will not open until an operator is selected and exhibits are installed in a second phase of construction.

Considerable challenge

The passage of time and the less-than-pristine condition of the building posed a considerable challenge for the architects, a joint venture of Kelly, Clayton & Mojzisek and Morgan State University architecture department chairman Anthony Johns.

Working with Heery Project Management, the construction manager, and Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, the general contractor, they had to do more than a little detective work to find out what was there before so they could bring it back. The lack of original drawings and absence of a congregation gave the design team, headed by KCM's Brian Kelly, some leeway in interpreting the best way to finish the church.

A lesser architect might have abused that freedom, but not Mr. Kelly. After studying the church's history and the work of Mr. Davis, a Baltimorean who also designed Grace Methodist Episcopal Church at Lanvale and Carrolton streets and John Wesley Methodist Church at 717 S. Sharp St., he developed a blueprint for putting back what time took away -- and then some.

"It's in the spirit of what [Frank Davis] intended," Mr. Kelly said of the restoration. "Maybe it's even better than what he could do with the budget and the resources he had at the time. The goal was to underline the previous design, to make it stronger than it was, even, but not too strong."

The architect's goals dovetailed neatly with those of the Urban League, whose leaders became enamored of the church imagery and saw value in embracing it.

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