Sanctuary gives church an architectural identity

November 20, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

For more than three decades, the leaders of Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church have struggled to put their house of worship on the map.

Though it occupies a prominent site in the 6200 block of North Charles Street, just north of the city-county line, the church has been hidden for years behind a stand of tall pines. Even when people found the low-rise brick complex, they frequently mistook it for a school, day-care center or bingo hall.

The problem lies largely with the architecture. When they first bought the property in 1960, church members didn't have enough money to build the sanctuary they wanted. So for nearly 35 years they've held services in a "temporary 'worship center,' " a modest brick building that doubles as a fellowship hall. And they've paid the price in the form of low visibility that has hindered growth.

"We'd get calls all the time from people -- delivery men and others -- who say they can't find the church," admits the Rev. Robert W. Lawrence, pastor for the past four years. "To make matters worse, one of the maps has us down as the Chautauqua Academy, a group that used to rent space in our education building. After a while, you get an identity crisis."

But all that is about to change.

At 10:30 a.m. today, church members will gather one last time for religious services inside the old worship center. Halfway through the first hymn, they will stop singing, proceed into a new, $2.3 million sanctuary that has been built next door, and finish singing the hymn there. By the time the "Transition Sunday" service is over, the invisible church on Charles Street will be invisible no more.

After worshiping in a space that has all the warmth and character of a club basement, the 415 members of Brown Memorial Woodbrook church are taking a dramatic leap of faith. They are moving into one of the freshest and most distinctive churches to open in the Baltimore area in years, a soaring, 350-seat sanctuary that literally has been three decades in the making.

Outside, it's a powerful presence that reaches out to the community and issues a call to worship. Inside, it's a warm, light-filled space that can quiet the soul or lift the spirits.

Best of all, it finally gives the church the architectural identity it never had. And it does so without resorting to any stilted symbols or hollow stylistic cliches. Its clean, crisp, modernist imagery helps it stand out from the older buildings to which it is attached -- and even gives them a new importance.

"It's almost as if we were building a completely new church," marvels Mr. Lawrence.

Answered prayers

The church was established in 1960 as an offshoot of Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Bolton Hill. Like many congregations that built new homes in the suburbs during the 1960s, the worshipers at Woodbrook erected a fellowship hall and an education and office center first and set aside land to build a sanctuary when they could afford to do it right. But funds were slow to materialize.

Under Mr. Lawrence, the congregation has explored a variety of options, from fixing up the old worship center to selling the property and moving farther out in the county. Their architects, Steve Ziger and Leigh Anne Jones of Ziger Snead Inc., were instrumental in persuading members to build a new sanctuary on their present grounds. When an anonymous donor made a contribution that covered more than half the construction cost, the congregation's prayers were finally answered, and construction began last year.

Positioned between the education center and the fellowship hall, facing Woodbrook Lane rather than Charles Street, the new sanctuary respects the relatively quiet nature of the existing modern buildings while serving as a sculptural centerpiece for the total composition. It is also a three-dimensional metaphor for the act of worship it makes possible.

The body of the church is a massive, hand-crafted, square brick box. The roof is a thin, delicate, hovering form, draped over the base as if it were a handkerchief that fluttered down from the sky. According to Mr. Ziger, "the essence of Presbyterianism" is addressed in the dialogue between the base and the roof. He suggests they represent "the rational and the spiritual, the earth and the sky, knowledge and faith."

Although the curving roof seems to have an unusual shape, it's actually a simple "barrel vault," not uncommon in ecclesiastical architecture. But it's rotated on the diagonal and tilted 45 degrees so the high point is above the chancel.

"The concept was to accentuate the contrast between this light, sculptural roof, representing 'heavenly inspiration,' and the solid, anchored base, representing 'earthly craft,' " Mr. Ziger explains. "The best sacred spaces are those in which you feel the tension between heaven and earth."

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