Historic Baltimore cemetery is up for sale But its fate depends on finding old graves

November 21, 1996|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

The fate of a historic East Baltimore graveyard rests in the hands of the dead.

Glendy Cemetery, one of the oldest burying grounds in the city, is up for sale. The owner of the trash-strewn, 1.4-acre parcel at Broadway and Gay Street -- and the stone church that was built over it in 1884 -- wants $5 million for the dilapidated property.

The problem is that state law bars the development of hallowed ground -- and no one knows whether bodies still are buried in the graveyard.

The cemetery is believed to be the last resting place of George Stiles, the city's fourth mayor; George Dobbin, a founder of the Baltimore American newspaper; and several defenders of North Point and Fort McHenry in the War of 1812.

But no one can be certain because many bodies were moved, and records of their departure from Glendy either were lost or never kept.

"We are hoping the price will attract someone who knows the historic value of the property and wishes to preserve the church and grounds," said Carol E. Glover of the Cathedral of the Living Word Inc., the inactive Christian organization that owns the property.

The once-dignified Glendy graveyard was purchased by the Second Presbyterian Church in 1807. It was originally called the Eastern Burying Ground, but its name was changed to honor the Rev. John Glendy, the church founder.

Today all that is visible of the 189-year-old cemetery are two neglected tombs and pieces of headstones. Debris litters the yard. Broken beer bottles, a busted stereo and trash are scattered over the grounds.

Even Knox Church -- the stone structure built over the cemetery in 1884 by Charles Carson, a founding member of the American Institute of Architects -- has fallen into disrepair. Several windows are boarded up, and graffiti scar the building.

"We clean the cemetery every week, but we can't keep up with the trash that is constantly being dumped in the yard," said Lula Simon, co-pastor of Higher Ground Ministries Inc., a nondenominational Christian group that grew out of Cathedral of the Living Word. The group holds services in Knox Church and has paid the mortgage on the property for the past two years.

Despite the poor condition of the church and graveyard, Glover said, the property is worth much more than $221,610, the assessed market value listed on property records, because it has a colorful history and lies in the heart of the federal empowerment zone.

"That property is an historical site," she said. "We never got it declared as one because we didn't have the manpower to stick with it. But if you know the history of the church, if you've seen the pews and its other valuable amenities, you know that is not a $200,000 building. We don't have the financial means to preserve the church. If we did, it would have been done by now."

Cathedral of the Living Word, which became inactive after its founder died in 1993, faces financial difficulty. According to court documents, the Internal Revenue Service filed a lien against the group Oct. 22 for failure to pay $37,564 in employer withholding tax. Such action usually is not taken until other collection efforts fail.

The sale of Knox Church and the cemetery concerns some neighbors who believe Glendy may threaten the future of an adjoining playground that they have tried for months to wrest from drug dealers and restore.

"If the property is bought by a commercial developer -- and at that price, it seems to me it would have to be -- where are customers going to park?" asked Ruth Crawford, 73, a lifelong resident of the community. "The new owners would have to take over the playground to create a parking lot if the cemetery can't be used."

The playground was built on Faith Lane, a narrow road that runs behind the cemetery and connects Biddle and Bond streets, in the late 1960s after several rowhouses and an upholstery shop ** were torn down. A rusty swing set, some granite tables and an empty wading pool remain.

"When I was a child, I used to play there," said Jacquline Thomas, 39, of the 1600 block of Biddle St. "It was a beautiful little playground. I want to restore it to what it once was so the neighborhood children can play there without fear."

In the past few months, the new Faith Lane Community Association, which Thomas founded, has had trees in the playground trimmed and streetlights installed. Its members also have confronted drug dealers and call police when they witness illegal activity in the small lot.

As residents fret over the future of the cemetery and the impact it will have on the neighborhood, descendants of those who were buried in Glendy hope the church and burial grounds will be preserved.

"I visited the cemetery a few years ago, hoping to see where my ancestors -- the Kyle family -- are buried," said James T. Wollon, a Havre de Grace architect. "I wasn't able to locate them. They were buried in a mausoleum that had a small door with an earth covering. I have no idea what happened to it."

The cemetery's burial records have been lost over the years or were never kept by the Presbyterians who buried their loved ones there almost two centuries ago.

Bodies first were moved from the cemetery during the 1870s, when part of the graveyard was condemned by city officials for the extension of Broadway.

Glendy was again marked for development during the 1950s and '60s, when a Presbyterian congregation tried to clear the land to make way for a playground. Plans to develop the cemetery were not completed because a local heritage group objected to what they called the church's "methodical destruction" of graves.

"Hopefully, the sale of the building will generate new interest in the cemetery and Knox Church," said Wollon. "I'd really like to see the church saved for its architectural value, and the cemetery preserved. I hope to find out what happened to the mausoleum and the remains of my mother's family."

Pub Date: 11/21/96

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