Reaching for church's ceiling

Artisans restore 1859 Gothic detailing at First and Franklin Presbyterian

  • The 150 year-old First and Franklin Presbyterian Church on Park Avenue in Mount Vernon is undergoing an extensive interior renovation.
The 150 year-old First and Franklin Presbyterian Church on… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
January 02, 2010|By Jacques Kelly

The church officers decided the pew cushions had to go. That 1859 horsehair stuffing was getting no softer.

Downtown Baltimore's First and Franklin Street Presbyterian Church is making substantial changes during a winter-long $1.5 million renovation. Come spring, the 248-year-old congregation will have air conditioning for the first time and a repainted interior, paid for largely with money raised by the congregation through pledges and donations.

Removing the old seat pads was the easy part. Records show they were provided when the church opened in its present location in October 1859. Like much in the church, only the best would do. They were supplied by the estimable Baltimore firm of Henry W. Jenkins, cabinetmakers and undertakers.

But it's the current interior paint job that requires the attention of architects, an accomplished church renovator, numerous consultants, artisans and graduates of local art schools.

"The church has a tour de force interior," said architect Michael Murphy, whose firm is handling the restoration.

A few weeks ago, a temporary level was built within the church interior, high above the pews. The arrangement of elevated metal scaffolding braces, stairs and plywood allows the artisans to work comfortably in the upper reaches of what may be the most complicated ceiling in Baltimore. A church history calls it an example of "flamboyant Gothic," a name that seems to fit as well as any.

"We call it the dance floor," said Phil Adams, a member of the congregation who lives in Reservoir Hill and who, when a choir member, could see the detail from the choir loft. "It allows work to be done. It's amazing to touch what you have been staring at for 10 years."

The object of all the attention is a series of architectural pendants called an architectural boss, which the dictionary calls a "protruding ornament." The Victorian designers, ever on to a new technology, laced these pendants with illuminating gas jets.

From the day the place opened, Baltimoreans were amazed at what they saw. A Sun reporter called it a "magnificent and gorgeous church."

The church took nearly six years to build and its completion was touch-and-go up to the Sunday it was dedicated.

"The artisans engaged in preparing the church were assiduous up to midnight on Saturday," the paper reported.

Recently, the construction manager orchestrating the downtown church's restoration surveyed the small army of paint scrapers working in this temporary aerie and smiled, saying, "We've got the dream team."

Brian Washburn, project manager for Henry L. Lewis Contractors of Owings Mills, said that if the embellished plaster ceiling and its rows of curlicued pendants appear complicated, the truss work under the roof - which only the sexton and a few odd pigeons see - is "another world."

Leading a tour this week, he said the church's hidden structural elements appeared as if built by a ship's carpenter. Adams and other members of the congregation carefully climbed aged wooden ladders and crawled through a maze of wooden beams that Vermont-born architect Norris Starkwether devised in what became his major work.

The new air conditioning system ductwork will be run through this space and throw cool air through fancy little openings known as oriels.

But it's the finicky paint on the elaborate plasterwork ceiling that is getting the attention these weeks.

"There was serious paint failure," said Thomas Moore, whose Woodberry-based paint conservation studio has drafted about a dozen Maryland Institute College of Art and Towson University fine art graduates. They sit on ladders with sculpturing knives and remove layers of water, oil and latex paint on the leafy plaster embellishments.

"There's a lot of picking with small tools," Moore said.

Also on board is a plaster consultant, a British-based firm, Hayles & Howe, which has a shop in the Remington neighborhood.

"The plaster is so complicated, the acanthus leaves, the intertwining grapes, all the botanicals," said consultant Mark Mordhurst.

"The work was originally cast in gypsum and was expertly done. Our biggest challenge is to discover what is missing, what fell off over the years."

What remains is a color choice. The congregation has been wrestling with paint charts, suggestions and questions of historic aesthetics,

The interior was originally a pinkish tone colored with a water-based, chemical-like substance called calcimine. One observer said it was so pink it looked like " Barbie's dream church."

"It was water-soluble - a cheap and cheerful paint," Mordhurst said.

The church's pastor, the Rev. Alison Halsey, said that in the renovation, the key is not making mistakes.

"The building is a phenomenal structure," she said. "But what is really phenomenal is for a congregation of 180 persons to raise more than $1 million for this job."

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