Frostburg — Frostburg-- --The steel skeleton is more visionary art than ark. Still, a visitor can make out the arklike bowed front of Pastor Richard Greene's roadside attraction off Interstate 68. Three stories high and set in concrete, the steel structure shares a foothill with its loyal billboard: "Noah's Ark Being Rebuilt Here."
Nothing, however, has been built in seven years.
"I feel terrible about it. I've asked God, `Why are you taking so long to build this ark?' " says Greene, a genial, coat-and-tie preacher who appeared for a time with Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson on the TV circuit in the 1980s. But religious programming wasn't Greene's mission; he had an ark project off the National Freeway in Western Maryland. At 70, Greene is still on the job.
"People drive by and ask me when am I going to finish this thing," he says. "Hey, when they give me the money I'll finish this thing."
Beginning in 1974, Greene says, God told him to build a replica of Noah's ark to signal the end of days and the return of Jesus, as told in the Old Testament. This wouldn't be an actual ark - no two-of-a-kind animals, clean or otherwise. This would be an ark schoolhouse and church built to nothing short of biblical proportions. Tourists would flock to Frostburg to see the ark.
Two years later, a groundbreaking was held Easter Sunday at the site of Greene's small church. At first, there was nothing but a hole in the ground, the ark sign and wildfire gossip in Frostburg about the church with the hole in the ground and sign. The concrete was poured in 1977. The steel came 22 years later.
Today, the project's $7 million cost has climbed to $30 million. Greene's 150-member evangelical church, God's Ark of Safety, has faithfully contributed money, as have people all over the world. More than $1.2 million has been spent, but finishing the first phase will cost an additional $10 million. The church's building fund is $240,000.
"I'm praying for millions of dollars," says Greene. But it would take a miracle to raise $30 million.
A miracle, precisely.
Like `Evan Almighty'
Would there be a nicer place for an ark?
Frostburg - home to 18 churches and just 8,100 people, a state university, a scenic railroad, soapbox derbies and chili cook-offs - has also been the year-round home of Richard Greene's ark. In Maryland's panhandle, 150 miles west of Baltimore, Frostburg usually flies under the media radar. There was that home-wrecking tornado of 1989, and a year later a telesales company pulled out 100 telemarketing jobs because residents were just too nice to bother people around dinnertime. The telemarketing story made international news.
Around here, the ark became yesterday's news.
"When you see something every day, it kind of blends in with the landscape. It's not unique anymore," says John Kirby, Frostburg's city administrator.
Then, the Steve Carell comedy movie, Evan Almighty, was released this summer, and the story of a modern man called to build an ark hit home in Frostburg. Greene, not a theater man, did see the show. The movie was considered a bust, but Greene, for one, loved the part when God tells Evan to build the ark. Evan says people will call him crazy. "That's exactly what I thought!" Greene says.
People stop again to look at the steel shell off Cherry Lane by the converted Chevrolet showroom that is Greene's church. New people ask the old questions. Where is it? Has there been any progress? Will the ark ever be done? The relationship between the town and its most curious feature remains one of amusement, embarrassment and affection.
"I'm smitten by the ark," says Jessica Muessen on the front step of Independent Ink, a body-art studio on Main Street. Muessen, a 29-year-old Frostburg native, also saw the Carell movie, which only renewed her civic interest in Greene's unfinished work.
"When I have friends in town, I always take them over to the ark," she says. Her local friends tease her about her regular ark tours. "But it's the highlight of the trip to Frostburg. Hey, if that's all we got, then I'm going to go with it."
Across the street at Misty Blue Fashions, beauty-store owner Edie Whitaker Moran, another native, shakes her head and smiles. She's not smitten with the ark. Seems to her a smaller facility could have been built a long time ago. Seems they bit off more than they could chew over there, she says. Year after year, just steel beams to look at. Embarrassing.
"People still stop by and ask where Noah's ark is," Moran says. "I'm ashamed to tell them because there's nothing there."
She tells them anyway. Even the faint promise of a 450-foot church ark can be good for business.