The sightly Victorian Gothic church in Mount Vernon Place, with its towering spires, gray-green serpentine sandstone and rose window, stands tall at what was once the heart of 19th-century Baltimore’s most elite neighborhood. Constructed by top architects and designers of the day, it has withstood nearly 150 years of wear and tear, even as its congregant base eroded and its maintenance needs mounted.
Built to seat hundreds of worshipers, the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church featured “rich and magnificent” craftsmanship and decor, fine detailing and space for a talented choir “almost without a parallel” The Sun reported in the 1870s.
Like other historic churches, Mount Vernon’s has reached the testy crossroads of modernity and preservation. A New Jersey-based developer who wants to buy the property gained approval from Baltimore’s planning commission last month to subdivide it from its adjoining parish house, despite fierce opposition from community members and local preservation advocates.
The so-called Asbury House and the church currently sit on one lot, and the developer, Joseph Novoseller, would split it into two so that each could potentially be sold separately, according to plans outlined by the city’s planning commission. It has been on the market for about four years.
The conflict between Novoseller and preservationists highlights the challenges facing aging, urban architectural wonders, particularly those with religious origins, as national religiosity dwindles and the feasibility of restoring the structures to former glory shrinks.
“All throughout the city and the country, we’re going to have to figure out how much change we are going to allow,” said Eric Holcomb, the executive director of Baltimore’s historic preservation program. “These are specialized buildings, designed for one purpose: worship."
The city’s Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation, also known as CHAP, reviews plans for properties located in historic districts such as Mount Vernon to ensure the character of the area remains intact. It eventually will vote to approve or disapprove Novoseller’s plans, acting as a check on his proposals.
Those who oppose the subdivision plans, including community members, local preservationists and conservancy bodies, said carving the parish house away from the church would decrease the property’s value and make the restoration process less realistic within the strict limits applied to historic buildings. The aged church may not have the capacity or infrastructure to fit an elevator, incorporate air conditioning systems or implement modern code requirements without the adjacent parcel, they argue.
Steve Ziger, a principal at the Baltimore-based Ziger Sneed architecture firm who specializes in historic preservation projects, testified against the subdivision ruling at the planning commission hearing. He said separating the two entities limits what can happen next.
“The fact they are combined is an asset that the city should not lightly give up, because the fact they are combined keeps many more options open for the church than separating it,” Ziger said. “I don’t think it’s a death knell for the church, but I think it was possibly short-sighted.”
Novoseller serves as the managing principal of Aria Legacy Group, a development firm that mostly specializes in apartments, including some in historic properties.
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, he said the community’s reaction to his plans may have stemmed more from emotions than logic.
“If they understood my personality or my corporate goals or objectives, they’d be looking at this differently,” said Novoseller, adding that he appreciates the heavy foot traffic near the church and wants to increase its value. “It’s an iconic structure with historic significance, and we want to bolster it because it would help us. It’d be a win-win.”
Novoseller said he has not yet closed on the transaction — which would mark his first venture in Baltimore — and the coronavirus pandemic has slowed his momentum. Still, he said, he has spoken to contractors about stabilizing the church roof, adding heating and air conditioning, and installing sprinklers and potentially a small elevator.
“I hope to be able to maintain it and come up with a use that everyone would be happy with,” he said. “When the opportunity arises and I get to meet the individuals who oppose this the most, I hope that they become part of the team and we become part of the neighborhood.”
Chris Ryer, director of Baltimore’s Department of Planning, said the planning commission did not have the jurisdiction to deny the subdivision request on legal grounds. He said the city should view the Mount Vernon Place church as a single wave of a greater “tsunami” of historic religious structures that will have to adapt to stay viable.
In Baltimore, home to dozens of aging churches and religious buildings and monuments, some sites already have found creative ways to preserve parts of the past while also meeting the demands of the present.
In January, St. Michael the Archangel Church, which served the city’s German-immigrant Catholics in Southeast Baltimore, reopened as a brewery. The Lloyd Street Synagogue, among the oldest Jewish temples in the United States, has been converted into a museum. Soon, the former Strawbridge Methodist Episcopal Church in the city’s Bolton Hill neighborhood will have apartments and exhibition space to display artwork from students at the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art.
Outside Baltimore, faith-based institutions also have found developers who transformed the facilities into apartments, performing arts venues, offices and senior centers. Reusing the spaces proves economically and environmentally fruitful, said Ed McMahon, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute.
“Adaptive reuse should be the default, and demolition the last resort,” said McMahon, pointing to studies that show historic preservation as a benefit for local economies, spurring tourism, raising property values and contributing to a sense of place. “In Baltimore, which is seeing a decline in population and having all kinds of challenges with crime, to the extent you can get people to stay in the city, you should be looking for opportunities to partner [with other entities] to address some of the equity issues.”
Strawbridge’s developer, Dan Kamenetz, said the church has been his team’s most difficult undertaking to date. A particular challenge has been leaving the church sanctuary intact so the building still qualifies as a religious structure and makes it eligible for certain historic tax credits, he said.
“When developers propose selling the ancillary buildings, that’s going to put the sanctuary in a more precarious position, because the sanctuary itself cannot change,” Kamenetz said. “They have to be reinvented to be preserved, and it takes a special developer to do. It’s not for the faint of heart.”
Kamenetz lives in Bolton Hill and has relied heavily on community feedback to see the work through.
“That’s what they expect from us,” he said. “I’m a neighbor who cares. This is my home.”
Those who oppose the Mount Vernon Place church’s subdivision said they fear Novoseller will profit off the Asbury House while the church continues to decay, and will shield himself from criticism back in New Jersey.
“This guy doesn’t have an understanding of the neighborhood and the level of scrutiny we apply here,” said Drew Rieger, a resident of Mount Vernon Place. “It’s a full-time stewardship job. We need somebody with the experience.”
So far, Novoseller has not put forth a specific plan for the Asbury House, revealing only his interest in subdivision. He said he will allow the congregation and the day care to remain in the church as tenants.
Novoseller added that he hopes this is just his first Baltimore-area project and that he can build on it to establish a larger presence.
The Baltimore-Washington United Methodist Conference, which owns the church, did not respond to requests for comment, but forwarded a reporter to Barb Bindon and Stephen Ferrandi of PrasieBuildings, a firm that deals exclusively with houses of worship.
Ferrandi, one of the brokers handling the transaction, said the congregation supports Novoseller’s plans. He said he disagrees with the assessment that subdivision hinders the work that can be done on the church, and hopes Novoseller and the community can sit down as partners and find common ground.
“Lots of people are concerned about preserving the church, but there are not a lot of people articulating a clear vision for it,” Bindon added. “There just aren’t a lot of candidates with deep pockets at the moment. People are not indicating they would step up and write a check.”