First Unitarian to be renovated for next century

URBAN LANDSCAPE

Church: One of Baltimore's key architectural and religious landmarks is to receive its first major restoration in a century.

July 29, 1999|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

AS PART of the rejuvenation of the Mount Vernon and Cathedral Hill historic districts, one of Baltimore's most important architectural and religious landmarks is about to get a face lift.

Leaders of First Unitarian Church of Baltimore recently hired Gould Architects P.A. of Baltimore to assess the condition of the neoclassical structure at Charles and Franklin streets and develop a preservation and modernization plan that will prepare it for continued use in the 21st century.

The commission calls for the architects to evaluate the building in the context of its structural integrity and the way it functions for religious purposes.

"We have a treasure here, and we want to make sure it's taken care of," said Judy Mayer, chairman of the church's 2001 Committee, which is responsible for strategic planning and capital planning.

The congregation's decision to remain at its location and preserve the church will help Mount Vernon remain "a vital and active urban area -- and one of the showcase neighborhoods of downtown Baltimore," said architect Amy Gould.

Designed by the French architect Maximilian Godefroy, the church was built in the early 1800s and is considered one of the finest examples of French romantic classicism in America.

The cornerstone was laid on June 5, 1817, and the building was dedicated 16 months later on Oct. 29, 1818. At the dedication service, the Rev. William Ellery Channing, a visiting minister, delivered a sermon titled "Unitarian Christianity," which became the basis of denominational Unitarianism in America.

The dome above the worship area was modeled after the one on the Roman Pantheon. At the apex of the front facade is a terra cotta sculpture of the Angel of Truth.

The interior worship area is square and was originally covered only by the dome, which rises 80 feet above the center of the sanctuary floor. To improve acoustics, a barrel vaulted ceiling was constructed below the dome in the late 1800s.

An adjacent parish house, built in the late 1800s, was donated by businessman Enoch Pratt, founder of the public library system in Baltimore and a lifelong member of the church. Constructed with bricks from buildings torn down to make way for the original Pratt Library on Mulberry Street, the parish house also will be part of the preservation.

Mayer said the design study was launched largely in response to the immediate need for exterior renovation work, including repairs to the stucco walls and terra cotta ornamentation. As long as the church needed work, she said, congregation leaders wanted to take an extensive, long-range look at the entire property and determine how it could be improved.

The church last received a major renovation in the 1890s, and the parish house was last renovated in the 1950s. Mayer said work is likely to include installing air conditioning, making sure the stained glass windows are structurally sound and improving meeting and teaching spaces.

The church seats 350 and has about 300 members who live throughout the metropolitan area. Mayer said church leaders will not know how much the renovation will cost until the study is finished in several months. The study will serve as the basis for a major fund-raising effort next year, and repairs will be completed as funds materialize.

Other historic places of worship that are being restored and upgraded in the Mount Vernon and Cathedral Hill districts include the Basilica of the Assumption at Cathedral and Mulberry streets; Emmanuel Episcopal Church at Cathedral and Read streets; and St. Ignatius Church at Calvert and Madison streets.

Mayer said she would like to see First Unitarian Church opened to the public for tours in conjunction with the First Thursday events along Charles Street and other occasions.

Pub Date: 7/29/99

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