Long-awaited renovation brings new life to Old St. Paul's

A long-awaited renovation brings light, warmth and brilliant skyscape to church

September 12, 2013|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

The Rev. Mark Stanley loves his work as rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church on North Charles Street, but during his first eight years on the job, he had a problem.

The lighting in the historic building was so poor, the color of the walls and ceiling so drab that he could barely make out his congregants from the pulpit.

"You want to be able to see people's reactions. The whole place just felt dark and dreary," he said. "That's not what you want in a place of worship."

Now the building, 157 years old this year, has a new look and feel. Church members are about to experience the results of a 10-week, $310,000 renovation that has revealed architectural details that Baltimore's oldest parish had long forgotten.

Teams of workers have repainted tired gray walls the color of sun-splashed wheat. They've reawakened a once-dark ceiling, painting it a radiant blue festooned with brilliant gold stars. New lighting has brought the space to life.

"This [renovation] makes you think of heaven way up there, with all the stars in the sky," said Sara Lycett of Mount Vernon, a member since 1978. "To put it mildly, that's a contrast to what it was."

Old St. Paul's, as it's widely known, will reopen with a ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 29, marking the newest chapter in the life of the church.

St. Paul's Episcopal was founded near what is now Fort Holabird Industrial Park in Dundalk in 1692, one of 30 Anglican parishes the British government created in Maryland that year. In 1729, members moved it to its current site, now at the intersection of Charles and Saratoga streets.

According to "The Voice of This Calling," a history of the church written by Baltimore Sun reporter Jacques Kelly in 1992, they chose the spot, then called Lot 19, because it was the highest point in Baltimore Town, which was officially founded that year. Since then, the city and church have unfolded side by side.

Members have included Samuel Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; George Armistead, who commanded Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore, and William Donald Schaefer, the former mayor and governor whose funeral there drew thousands in 2011.

The plain first building was replaced by a larger one in 1784, then by a more impressive neoclassical edifice in 1817. After a fire all but destroyed it 37 years later, the vestry reached out to famed architect Richard Upjohn, known for building Gothic Revival churches across the growing nation.

He created a towering, basilica-style Italian Romanesque building, complete with Corinthian columns and a ceiling buttressed by interlocking beams that recalled design elements of St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

The fourth building to go up on the site, it's also the most striking, said Rick Tomlinson, a congregation official and unofficial historian of the place.

"It's architecturally significant, not only because it's unique but also because it has its own architectural flair. It's beautiful without being obnoxious or overdone," Tomlinson said.

Ask some of today's 300 or so congregants, though, and they'll tell you it could feel as though it hadn't been upgraded for centuries.

Lycett said it's a naturally dark space that had become "dreary and dusty" with use, and another member agreed that it didn't exactly create a space conducive to community.

"You can't have a service that feels warm and welcoming when you can't see each other," said John Henderson, the senior warden.

There had been earlier renovations. In 1902, parishioners who wanted to add visual emphasis to the stained-glass window up front decided to coat the walls in gray. Sometime during the 1950s, they coated that with a generic-looking whitewash.

It has only been fading since, in part due to decades' worth of incense smoke.

"Honestly, it had become hideous," Stanley said.

The church has been pondering a renovation for years, Henderson said, and recently decided that even though many congregants have been feeling the effects of a weak economy, they needed to offer a space as welcoming as the worshipers themselves.

"My family and I joined here in 2006 because the people are so thoughtful and warm," he said.

A fund-raising drive netted about $100,000, a single congregant kicked in twice that amount, and the $310,000 project was underway.

One irony emerged early in the process. A consultant in historic materials research, Baltimore-based Matthew Mosca, analyzed the existing paint and found that the original coat was anything but drab.

Beneath the grimy faded white and various levels of gray, he unearthed a layer of lively yellow, a hue that paint historians call "harvest time."

The vibrancy is typical of the Victorian era, a period in which church colors were often far brighter than they usually are today.

"I felt we should do something that honors church history, and when [we] found that layer, it seemed just right," said Lycett, who served on a committee that chose the same hue for the renovation.

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