First & Franklin holds reopening service after renovation

1859 church has $1.5 million upgrade

  • First and Franklin Presbyterian Church will hold its reopening day service Sunday after a $1.5 million renovation.
First and Franklin Presbyterian Church will hold its reopening… (Photo courtesy of Alain…)
September 24, 2010|Jacques Kelly

On a warm Friday afternoon in the fall of 1980, I heard what sounded like every firetruck in the city converging on the Mount Vernon neighborhood. The old City College-Western High School building on Howard Street was burning. Its blazing embers blew heavenward as a strong wind touched off a secondary blaze at the First & Franklin Presbyterian Church. It was a lunchtime fire. Hundreds of people gathered to observe the ferocious power and drama of an eight-alarm blaze. It was not a news story I wanted to write.

Some quick thinking saved the church, which stood out — with a soaring stone tower — in a vulnerable place downwind of the main fire source. Firefighters dashed to the corner of Park and Madison and acted quickly after a member of the congregation spotted smoke coming from the roof. Firefighters ran a hose through a chapel, and one of Baltimore's most amazing landmarks remains standing today. I still recall the ordeal the choir members endured as they tried to salvage hymnals, Bibles and sheets of music that formed a waterlogged mess. It was a close call.

In the three decades since the fire, the faithful congregation at First & Franklin has stood by this 1859 treasure, tending its elaborate milk-chocolate-hued stonework and keeping Baltimore's tallest steeple in fine repair. As of Sunday, this congregation has reached another goal. It now has central air-conditioning, much upgraded lighting and a new interior paint job. It all cost $1.5 million and is money well spent.

It was not easy. The congregation surrendered the nave for months as architects, numerous consultants, artisans and graduates of local art schools took over. They built a complicated interior scaffolding system and chipped away with dental tools at layers of old paint.

The efforts were focused on what has to be the most complicated ceiling in Baltimore. It's been called "flamboyant Gothic," a term that fits as well as any. It's amazing, a plaster garden of acanthus leaves, intertwining grapes and botanicals I cannot try to name.

I dropped by the place this week and heard the organ tuners working down to the wire for Sunday's reopening day service. The Rev. Alison Halsey told me that brides are already planning their weddings. I marveled at the new lighting system, which allows a visitor to appreciate the crisscrossing arches. There is also a new color palette, a dusty rose with subtle highlighting to the ribbing. On a sunny September afternoon, the stained-glass window panels never looked better.

I thought about how it was Michael Vernon Murphy's last big church restoration. An architect who led restorations of so many Baltimore landmarks, who often adopted unpopular viewpoints as a member of the city's preservation commission, he died just a few weeks into the course of the work at First & Franklin. He was 62.

"The church has a tour de force interior," he told me just as the work was getting under way. He seemed pleased to shepherd another Baltimore landmark to a place where it could be used well and appreciated by future generations. Friends called him a "caring urbanist," a description that fit nicely. I can see this old friend now, walking down Charles Street, often with a friend alongside, turning west on Madison, to check on the progress of his latest project.

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