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Developers find new uses for sacred spaces

Mark Dent, president of Chesapeake Systems
Mark Dent, president of Chesapeake Systems - Steve Ruark
When Jack Gilden was searching for a headquarters for his advertising agency, he recalled his former church, Grace-Hampden Methodist Episcopal. He often passed the Hampden structure that had been burned almost to its shell by a fire. Gilden’s family has been a fixture in the neighborhood since the 1920s. He had fond memories of the space, and the neighbors did, as well.

“The neighbors appreciated my interest in renovating the church; they didn’t want to see it demolished,” Gilden says. “Many were married or baptised there.”

Similar projects are dotted around Baltimore – the work of developers, architects and designers who have transformed former houses of worship into commercial and nonprofit enterprises. The oldest standing structure built by African Americans in Baltimore was renovated to house a nonprofit focused on empowering this community. A converted church in Mount Vernon is a popular wedding venue and has had a starring role on TV shows and movies. A tech company in Hampden is headquartered under soaring cathedral ceilings. And a church badly damaged by a fire was restored into a space for creative minds at Gilden Integrated.

Churches are, by design, inspiring places and are a natural fit for adaptive reuse, says Scott Vieth, president of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).   “Churches were designed to be inspirational space, which is a quality that makes them attractive to new users."

Preserving the original structure, rather than demolishing it, makes it easier for developers to get community support from local residents who hold strong emotional ties to the property. The churches’ wide open spaces are easy to reconfigure and repurpose, says Tom Liebel, principal at Marks Thomas Architects in Baltimore. “These historic spaces have so much more character than newly constructed commercial spaces,” says Liebel, president-elect of AIA Baltimore.

BmoreMedia took a more in-depth look at four projects that blend historic details with modern-day functions.

Orchard Street Methodist Church converted to the offices of the Baltimore Urban League

The former Orchard Street United Methodist Church, the oldest standing structure built by African-Americans in Baltimore, stands just north of the city’s famed Lexington Market. Once reportedly a spot on the Underground Railroad and on Teddy Roosevelt’s 1912 election tour, the church played an undeniably significant role in Baltimore’s history.

After a $3.7 million renovation, the church opened in 1992 as the 22,000-square-foot headquarters of the Baltimore Urban League, and a black history museum. Funding came from the city, state, Maryland Historical Trust and private donors.

The Methodist church was constructed in 1837 in the Romanesque Revival style, with dramatic arches and windows. The rear building houses a large Gothic-style window and clerestory windows that allow light into the nave.

In 1972, Baltimore City elected to demolish the church. Community groups fought the demolition and secured a spot for the church on the National Register of Historic Places. There were efforts to create a museum of black history, but the church didn’t see restoration until the Baltimore Urban League took over the space.

Morgan State University architecture department chair Anthony Johns teamed up with contractors from Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse Inc. and architects from the now-defunct Kelly, Clayton, and Mojzisek in Mount Vernon. A designer from the firm researched the building’s history to help restore its original look and feel.

Christ Episcopal Church parish house converted to Chase Court

Chase Court’s stone facade is barely visible from its cross streets, Saint Paul and Chase. But it's famous nonetheless. It has been featured in several movies and television shows, including “My One and Only,” “Something the Lord Made,” and episodes of “The Wire.”

Located in the center of Mount Vernon’s bustling cultural district, the building at 1112 Saint Paul St. was built in 1879 as a parish house of Christ Episcopal Church. As a church-turned-event venue, Chase Court has been the home of weddings for 134 years. Most recently, it has hosted a number of same-sex weddings since gay marriage was legalized in Maryland in January.

“Chase Court is, for me, a sacred space,” says owner David Egan. “Our couples can feel and see that it's different from a hotel ballroom. [Chase Court] has become what I often hear described as an oasis in the city.”

The parish house was privately acquired in the late 1980s. Rather than razing the structure, the Gothic-style leaded-glass windows, woodwork, and high ceilings—and years of history—were all preserved. In 2002, it was converted into Chase Court, a 9,000-square-foot venue for weddings, meetings and other gatherings. The ballroom and library alone cover 2,000 square feet of the property, and the ballroom boasts a 15-foot ceiling, the original chandeliers, and a limestone fireplace.

“Being sacred space that is open and available without a church affiliation creates an opportunity for our couples to express their spirituality without constraints,” Egan says.

Mount Vernon United Methodist Church converted to the office of Chesapeake Systems

More than 200 years old and badly damaged by a fire, Mount Vernon United Methodist Church in Hampden doesn’t seem like the ideal location to house a technology company. But Chesapeake Systems CEO Mark Dent needed a new headquarters for his expanding team of 25 and decided to take a chance on the dilapidated church at 801 W. 33rd St.

After serving years as a house of worship, the  9,000-square-foot church was struck by lightning in 2008. The congregation was unable to rebuild after the resulting fire and the church remained vacant for 16 months. Dent passed the 1878 building daily and spoke to his business partner, George Brecht, about acquiring the space.

The church features 27-foot-high cathedral ceilings and 100-year-old Tiffany-stained windows. “It all puts you at peace while working,” Dent says.  

Dent and Brecht hired architect Megan Elcrat of Baltimore’s 33:Design LLC to complete the $600,000 renovation.

“The conversion was no simple task,” Elcrat says. “Not only did the building need to fulfill the needs of the office, but it also needed to meet current codes for a building open to the public.”

Elcrat had to integrate a new code-compliant stair and an accessible restroom without breaking up the open space of the original architecture. Her aim was to maintain the exposed structure of the original sanctuary and the three overhead doors that separated the two main spaces. Both posed security and sound challenges, but Elcrat succeeded.

Baltimore Heritage, the city’s nonprofit historic and architectural preservation organization, has honored Chesapeake Systems for excellence in adaptive reuse and compatible design. 

Grace-Hampden Methodist Episcopal Church converted to office of Gilden Integrated Advertising

The former Grace-Hampden Methodist Episcopal Church, erected in 1899, was restored to its original glory by Baltimore's Ziger/Snead Architects LLP and commercial builders Hencken & Gaines Inc. of Cockeysville.

The 12,000-square-foot church stands at the corner of Hampden’s 36th Street, between Hickory and Roland avenues.
Badly damaged by a fire in 1999, Jack Gilden purchased the Romanesque Revival style building for $115,000. The design team restored the granite outside and marked the center of the former sanctuary on the inside with a frosted glass conference room.

“I was interested in owning a quirky piece of architecture,” Gilden says. “I grew up in and believed in the neighborhood.”

Gilden worked with Ziger/Snead to transform the 12,000-square-foot shell of a building, built in Romanesque Revival style. 
Gilden invested $1.4 million on the renovation and insisted on including copper and slate roofing, stenciled plaster, roof trusses and the original stained glass. Much of the wood was damaged in the fire, but what was retained was made into benches and stair treads.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001, Gilden sold the church to Captain Stormfield Group LLC in 2007 for $2 million, more than his original purchase price and investment. Several organizations now occupy the space, including custom publisher Media Two and Machioli Construction Co. LLC.

“A driving concept was to contrast new and old, to communicate the vitality of the new,” says Ziger/Snead Partner Steve Ziger. “The church now has a second life.”

Renee Libby Beck is a freelance writer and public relations manager for Medifast Inc. Renee is the Baltimore Food Examiner for Examiner.com and writes for other local and national blogs and publications.


All photos by Steve Ruark

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