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

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.

Stanley also dug up a layer of church history: an architectural drawing of the interior someone made before the reopening in 1856. It looked much the way it does today, with one exception: The ceiling was covered with painted stars.

No one could find proof that such a design was ever created, but Stanley believes it was the architect's original intention.

"We're realizing the vision they had back then," Stanley said.

Committee members worked with a local architecture firm, Murphy & Dittenhafer, to choose an aesthetically irregular pattern. More than 400 gold stars in various sizes now look down from on high, giving worshipers a sense of closeness to "God's creation," the rector said.

The church even gave members a chance to "buy" stars — much as individuals can name actual celestial bodies through the International Star Registry.

The price tag: $200 apiece. The church has sold 97 so far.

St. Paul's has been closed for worship services since mid-June, when contractors began assembling the 42 tons of scaffolding they've stood on. The congregation has been meeting at the Tremont Plaza Hotel down the block.

When parishioners return, they may have trouble realizing they're in the place they used to know.

The new design gives a full view of its upper reaches, an area Lycett said was once so dark people rarely bothered to look up.

Henderson, who has visited the site, has been noticing architectural details he couldn't even see before, including the wooden beams Upjohn installed five stories above the sanctuary floor.

"It was so dark up there I thought they were just black. They're a beautiful chestnut color," he said.

On reopening morning, Stanley said, he won't merely be happy to look out and see faces looking back. He'll speak in his sermon about rebirth and renewal, apt themes for a church he said is younger than ever and growing.


He also figures he'll mention the skyscape above them.

"After all, the Wise Men were star-gazers," he said. "This reconnects us to God's creation. It's an awesome feeling."