Getting chills in spooky Westminster catacombs

Church where Poe is buried will hold Halloween tours

  • Chris Hohing, supervisor of building maintenance at Westminster Hall, looks at one of the tombs under the church, which was built on top of the graveyard. Westminster is the burial place of Edgar Allan Poe and many other prominent citizens of Baltimore.
Chris Hohing, supervisor of building maintenance at Westminster… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
October 25, 2013|Jacques Kelly

The stream of visitors who passed through the iron gates at Fayette and Greene streets this week reverenced Edgar Allan Poe's monument and grave, but then they soon drifted along the lanes and brick paths of this historic churchyard on the western edge of downtown Baltimore.

This Halloween offers visitors a chance to go one better. The catacombs under the 1851 Westminster Presbyterian Church will be open Thursday. And while I am not much of a believer in ghosts, this quirky part of old-time Baltimore is a must destination for the ghost-believing or merely historically curious. It's also a place of beauty and some unexpected architectural finery.

As a Halloween night destination, this one truly delivers the shivers. No wonder actor and Poe portrayer Vincent Price so loved to come here, underneath the arches of a venerable structure, a place where death is both honored but gives you pause. A long pause.

My guides here, Mary Jo Rodney and Lu Ann Marshall, both with the Westminster Preservation Trust, showed me their carefully tended shrine, where more than three decades of attention and research show well. By day, this is a Valhalla of Baltimore's founding families. By night, better bring your nerve restorer. It's scary — and legitimately so.

My guides lost no time taking me to the crypt, a deep cavity dug more than 200 years ago on the Greene Street side of the property. These Baltimore catacombs were once part of the Westminster Burying Ground, a cemetery founded by the city's affluent flour traders and merchants. The cemetery started in 1789. In a curious practice, a full, Gothic Revival church was constructed atop the graveyard. Other families have plots on exterior parts of the property, which is nicely set around the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, the institution that created the Westminster Trust to save this landmark.

The church, where services ceased being held nearly 40 years ago, is now Westminster Hall, an elegant and restored landmark often used for weddings, receptions and public functions. On Halloween, local organists dressed in capes will play Bach and Chopin medleys worthy of a ball chaperoned by Lily Munster, Charles Addams and Uncle Fester.

Visitors must watch their heads as they step beneath Westminster Hall's exterior brick walls and into a semi-paved burial zone. This chamber is laid out with markers that are obviously well researched and informative. The good scholarship doesn't diminish the case of the shakes the place imposes. And yet, it is a chamber that is hard to leave. The place is just too real, too historic, too compelling to vacate quickly.

I looked through a descending chamber a mystery writer might call the hidden staircase. It leads to a subterranean burial area. The base of an old coffin is visible, as well as the wellhead, a piece of engineering used to drain off the streams that once flowed freely here and occasionally resurface during a downpour.

The crypt has its own door. Its custodian told me he never oils its hinges lest he diminish the spectacular sound effect it produces.

These grounds hold the prosperous and solid citizens of very old Baltimore. I looked at the names: Purviance, Stewart, Buchanan, Stricker, Calhoun, Bentalou, Mosher and Gilmor. Some had what a marker calls "designer tombs," or burial structures made of locally quarried stone, in some cases designed by Maximilian Godefroy, the French-born tastemaker architect who once practiced in Baltimore. His Egyptian Revival entry gates facing Greene Street are gems.

I recall, maybe about 1973, sitting in the functioning but withering Presbyterian church. It was a sad relic, lacking the kind of recognition it has today. The concept of history-filled Halloween tours and wedding receptions was a distant dream. The results of years of hard work are worthy of some sly, good October wizard.

The Westminster Burying Ground and Catacombs' annual Halloween Tour is 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, Fayette and Greene streets.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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