Falling plaster spurs repairs at St. Paul's


September 23, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

With its Louis Comfort Tiffany windows and Lombardy-Gothic design, the interior of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is one of the most handsome sanctuaries in Baltimore.

But in recent weeks it has looked like a construction site, with scaffolding erected above the chancel to protect parishioners and clergy from falling plaster.

The scaffolding will be up at least through the Christmas holidays, as restoration crews work to complete emergency repairs at the 137-year-old church, the fourth to stand at the southeast corner of Charles and Saratoga streets.

"It wasn't a large piece of plaster -- about 5 to 8 pounds," and no one was hurt, said Richard R. Harwood III, junior warden of the vestry and head of its property committee. "We had seen cracks in the chancel ceiling for a number of years, so we decided it was time to take a good look at the structure of the arch, as well as the plaster, and see what was wrong."

After discovering the fallen plaster in April, church leaders brought in Tidewater Restorations Inc., architect Michael Trostel, and structural engineer Jerome Lamprecht. They traced the cause to structural changes made nearly 40 years ago.

In 1956, the church removed several brick columns from the basement and installed steel beams in the ceiling to carry the weight of columns in the sanctuary above. In the 1960s, crews further excavated beneath the sanctuary to create meeting space.

Based on the pattern of fissures, the advisers speculated that the 1950s-era beams weren't strong enough to support the weight of the building after the columns were removed. They have prescribed additional steel beams for the basement's ceiling and bracing for areas of the chancel where arches meet support columns. Restorers will then repair the ornamental plasterwork on the arch and restore the gilded ceiling.

"None of our advisers has said the church is about to tumble down around us," Mr. Harwood said. "But it's something that has to be addressed. You might be able to put off painting a windowsill, but this is not in that category."

The work is complicated because the structure was built on the foundations of a previous church and because the soil is unusually sandy. Designed by Richard Upjohn, the 1856 church replaced an 1814 building by Robert Cary Long Sr. that burned in 1854.

St. Paul's began as a mission of the Church of England in 1692 and was initially known as the Patapsco Parish. Last year, the church celebrated the 300th anniversary of its founding. The first St. Paul's Church at Charles and Saratoga streets was built in the 1730s.

Mr. Harwood and the Rev. Douglas Pitt, who served as acting rector over the summer, said the repairs are expected to cost $100,000 to $200,000. The vestry has some maintenance funds that can be used to start the work, they say, but it will also have to seek public grants and private donations to make up the difference.

"We are hopeful that friends and neighbors will be generous in helping us," Mr. Harwood said. "There are few churches that could happily absorb a job like this in their operating budgets."

Insurance won't help pay, he said, because, in insurance parlance, "this comes under the heading of 'an act of God.' I don't mean to make light of it, but there does not appear to be an insurance claim to be made from this."

Repairs will begin within two weeks. Church leaders say the fall ing plaster has also prompted them to develop a strategy for long-term maintenance, including painting the nave and fixing stained-glass windows that are buckling.

"I wouldn't exactly call it a blessing in disguise, but we'll be better off when this work is complete," said the rector, the Rev. William Noble McKeachie. "Even without this incentive, the church was overdue for a sprucing-up."

Meanwhile, services are being held under the scaffolding on Sundays and in a side chapel on weekdays. The church has even had two weddings under the scaffolding, Mr. McKeachie noted. "Both of the couples said later that they didn't even notice it."

Fowler tour

The Johns Hopkins University and the Baltimore Architecture Foundation will sponsor a guided tour of seven houses by noted architect Lawrence Hall Fowler -- including the Abel Wolman House -- from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 2. The tour starts at the Evergreen House, 4545 N. Charles St. Call 516-0341.

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