Jacques Kelly: Mount Vernon Place church needs some saving grace

When its congregation dipped below 100 souls — and a piece of plaster fell from a cornice — members of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church realized they had to rethink their stewardship of this major Baltimore landmark.

Located alongside the Washington Monument on Charles Street, the church and the patriotic memorial occupy perhaps Baltimore’s best known and beloved architectural setting.

Last week, congregation trustees took the unusual step of engaging a real estate broker, Praisebuildings, to advertise a request for proposals for a new owner, or perhaps a partnership, moving forward.

Members of the congregation say they are willing to do what it takes to assure this piece of the city’s architectural legacy remains preserved — and are equally adamant they want to retain a place for weekly worship within the commodious property.

“The amount of effort it was taking to maintain the buildings was taking away from our mission as a church,” said Johnson Garrett, a church trustee. “The majority of city churches have shrunk in size. We don’t want to see this precious place go away.”

In addition to the church, with its roomy nave and ribbed arch ceiling, the Mount Vernon Place complex includes a finely detailed chapel and an enormous brownstone parsonage known as the Asbury House. Once a private residence, Asbury House is a fine Mount Vernon Place mansion. In the 19th century it was home to executives of trans-Atlantic shipping lines that served Baltimore’s immigrant trade.

The church leadership has been dealing with maintenance and upkeep issues for years.

“Our costs have risen dramatically in recent years,” Garrett said. “We need to work smarter, not harder.”

Mount Vernon Place United Methodist opened at the northeast corner of Charles Street and Mount Vernon Place in 1872. The Sun’s account of its dedication called the place “one of the most imposing church edifices in the country.”

The church tower is 168 feet high. Architects Dixon and Carson designed a fanciful and well proportioned Gothic building clad in a distinctive green-hued stone known as serpentine. The church had a pair of magnificent rose windows — one facing south and another in a chapel that faces west and sparkles on an early summer evening.

In the early 1870s, when the church was first being planned, its trustees held an auction so its members could vie for choice pews. There was spirited bidding and some wealthy Methodists paid $5,460 for their own pews.

The Sun reported the least expensive pew sold for $495, in an era when that amount could buy a house.

“The interior presents a rich and magnificent appearance,” The Sun said in its 1872 account of the church’s formal opening. The article noted that the exterior stonework was “fine pointed and laid in a random range.”

Some of Baltimore’s best artisans contributed to the construction. William J. Hiss carved the pulpit and communion rail; Hugh Sisson contributed masonry and tile elements, and John Gernhardt did the elaborate, bejeweled stained glass.

There is considerable precedent elsewhere in the city for the reuse of remarkable buildings. The Engineering Society of Baltimore rescued the old Garrett-Jacobs mansion after a masonic organization moved away in the 1950s, the Walters Art Museum recently reopened its Hackerman House, a once problematic mansion that had languished in vacancy, and Peabody Institute has reclaimed much of the south side of Mount Vernon Place.

And let’s not forget the cavernous former home of Loyola High School and College sat largely vacant for more than 30 years until the Jesuit Fathers handed the property over to Center Stage. The theater has subsequently flourished.

Those examples give the congregation hope they will see a similar outcome for their beloved church property.

“We are not giving up,” said Garrett. “Spectacular things have happened with other structures in the neighborhood. We feel the same thing can happen to Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church.”

“We are keeping our fingers crossed and our eyes wide open,” he said.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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