More than 150 years ago, slaves and freed slaves reportedly labored by torchlight to build one of the first African Methodist Episcopal churches in Baltimore -- the Orchard Street Church.
By 1882, the congregation finished the third church to occupy the site, a structure that is now undergoing a painstaking restoration that this week will be cited as a national success story.
The Baltimore Urban League Inc. has passed the halfway point in its $4 million modernization of the church.
"It's going to be a real showplace," said Urban League President Roger Lyons.
To show off its progress, the Urban League will welcome preserva tionists gathering in Baltimore this week for Sacred Trusts Five, a national conference of clergy, congregation members, planners and others in charge of caring for older religious properties.
This is the first time that Baltimore has been the site of the convention, which will be based at Emmanuel Episcopal Church and other Mount Vernon locations Wednesday through Saturday. Convention delegates will have a chance to tour various religious properties that have been saved in Baltimore.
The Orchard Street Church, one of the few local churches undergoing conversion, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. A tunnel beneath the Sunday school is said to have been a hiding place for slaves escaping to freedom before the Civil War, although there is no hard evidence.
By November, the Sunday school building will be the home of the Baltimore Urban League, an affiliate of the National Urban League.
The 69-year-old social services organization will move its headquarters from the basement of Mondawmin Mall to the building behind the church and convert the church's sanctuary to an African-American cultural museum.
"As a black man, I get a special feeling just going into the church, and I believe that other people will get a similar kind of sensation, which I find difficult to put into words," said development executive Vernon Locklear.
"This is the kind of thing that will make it an important attraction, not only for people in Baltimore, but for people who come to visit Baltimore," he said.
Said Mr. Lyons, "It's not just African-American history. It's American history."
Visible from Martin Luther King Boulevard near Druid Hill Avenue, the 110-year-old church building was designed by Frank E. Davis in an Italian Renaissance style with a Victorian twist.
The Sunday school annex was designed 21 years later by Francis Tormey.
After the property was vacated in 1970, the city of Baltimore acquired it and sought redevelopment proposals.
In 1989, after one previous group was unable to move ahead with restoration, the Schmoke administration awarded the property to the Urban League, which competed against two other bidders.
The city sold it for $1 to officials of the organization.
Mr. Lyons and architect Brian Kelly say the church's layout worked well for the organization's activities, which include job training, job placement, consumer services, a youth service bureau, AIDS education, teen-age pregnancy programs and a literacy center.
The fellowship hall, a large open space beneath the sanctuary, will be retained as open space for the Urban League's manpower program.
The sanctuary above is being restored as closely as possible to its original appearance and will be left as a shell for the proposed museum.
The Sunday school building will house the main offices of the Urban League, with the stage of an old auditorium converted to a conference area and a paneled area at stage left housing the Urban League president's office. A mezzanine level has been constructed to provide enough offices for the staff, and rooms near the entrance will be set up as job training classrooms.
Two rowhouses next to the church will be kept for possible expansion of Urban League offices or the museum offices, and a vacant lot across Orchard Street from the church will be landscaped as a plaza and drop-off point for tour buses.
According to Mr. Kelly, plans call for the main building to be restored in as authentic a manner as possible. Instead of using fiberglass ornamentation or other synthetic materials, as some restoration teams have done, the crew at Orchard Street is using wood trim, pressed tin ceilings and plaster on the walls.
It even persuaded a window manufacturer to fabricate special wooden replacement windows for the church, as a prototype for future projects.
With cooperation such as that, "the real materials turned out to be cheaper than the synthetic," Mr. Kelly said.
The Urban League's restoration plan could serve as a model for other groups seeking to form a public-private partnership to carry out a complicated church restoration.
The Urban League hired Kelly Clayton & Mojzisek and Dean Anthony Johns of the architecture school at Morgan State University to serve as architects for the restoration and Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse Inc. to be the general contractor.
To pay for the work, it put together a funding package that includes a $1.7 million state grant; $650,000 from the city; a $600,000 construction loan from Maryland National Bank; a $300,000 loan from the Maryland Historic Trust; $350,000 in donations from the corporate community; and $400,000 in donations from the black community.
Contributors read like a Who's Who of African-American business owners in Baltimore.
They include William March, head of the March Funeral Home Inc. and chairman of the development committee for the church conversion; Raymond Haysbert of Parks Sausage Co.; Tyrone Taborn of Career Communications; Harlow Fullwood of Fullwood Foods; and Osborne Payne, owner of several McDonald's franchises.
The largest single private contribution, $100,000, came from Henry Baines and Ed Hunt of the Stop, Shop & Save supermarket chain.
Corporate donors include Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. and Noxell Corp. The 32-member Urban League board contributed $125,000. Burt *T Hash, managing director of Provident Bank of Maryland, is chairman of the Orchard Street Church oversight committee.
Mr. Lyons and Mr. Locklear say they believe that the project has gotten more support from the black community that any other social services project in the city.
"It dispels the myth that blacks don't give to their own causes," Mr. Lyons said.
"This has been a good effort on the part of a lot of different people," he said. "Our mission statement talks about blacks and whites working together to improve the quality of life, and that's what this project is all about."
The Sacred Trusts Five conference, Wednesday through Saturday, is expected to bring several hundred preservationists to Baltimore to discuss strategies for making better use of space in old churches and synagogues.
Participants will tour religious properties from the restored churches of Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon to the former Westminster Presbyterian Church near the University of Maryland's Law School. The Rev. William Jennings Bryan III, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Dallas, will deliver the keynote address.
To sign up for the conference, titled "Building a Firm Foundation in Shaky Times," call co-sponsors Jubilee Baltimore Inc. at 327-7373 or Partners for Sacred Places, Philadelphia, at (215) 546-1288.