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Miracle on Orchard Street New headquarters for Urban League preserves 19th-century building while expressing 20th-century goals

In the field of preservation, as in politics, the watchwords for the '90s are multiculturalism and diversity.

Across the nation, more and more "minority" groups are taking the lead in preserving the historic structures that have served them socially and spiritually while making America a rich tapestry of ethnic enclaves.

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No project in the country epitomizes this movement toward pluralism better than one just completed in Maryland: the $3.7 million transformation of the Orchard Street Church to a new headquarters for the Baltimore Urban League.

In many ways this conversion exemplifies multiculturalism in preservation: an interracial social services organization working to empower itself and the community it serves by moving from leased space to its own landmark building, and joining forces with designers and craftspeople of all races and creeds to turn its dream to reality.

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But what really makes the league's achievement so spectacular is the building it chose as its symbol of progress and the painstaking way it was restored. The church was built in 1882 at 510 Orchard St., the former site of one of Maryland's first African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churches. The third church built by the same congregation, it contains a joyous and lyrical worship space, designed at the height of the Victorian era.

Though badly damaged by 17 years of neglect, the church still contained plenty of details for architects and contractors to work with, and they took full advantage of it. Unlike some restorers who wipe away a building's patina of history, this team kept the faith and stayed true to the original spirit of the church in every phase of construction.

Just as important in an age of Mickey Mouse theme parks and Hollywood docudramas, this is the real thing, not some half-baked version of history. Wood was replaced with wood, and plaster replaced plaster, not a hollow, synthetic facsimile. Colors not only provide a visual feast, but are also historically accurate.

Brought back to its former glory, Orchard Street stands as a reminder of what can be done with modern technology to save old buildings, even when they seem too far gone to salvage. It should make public officials think twice before they let another historic structure come down for anything as devoid of cultural significance as a parking lot.

Orchard Street Church also stands as a testament to the importance of historic preservation for minority groups in search of genuine links with their past, and a touchstone for anyone interested in learning about the African-American experience. It is as powerful and poignant as ever, a true miracle on Orchard Street.

Orchard Street Church is actually two projects in one: restoration of the 1882 church, originally designed by Frank Davis, for use as a cultural museum, and conversion of an adjacent 1903 Sunday school, designed by Francis Tormey, to new headquarters for the Baltimore Urban League. About 40 league employees moved into their new space last month, and restoration of the church was completed at the same time. The museum itself will not open until an operator is selected and exhibits are installed in a second phase of construction.

Considerable challenge

The passage of time and the less-than-pristine condition of the building posed a considerable challenge for the architects, a joint venture of Kelly, Clayton & Mojzisek and Morgan State University architecture department chairman Anthony Johns.

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Working with Heery Project Management, the construction manager, and Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, the general contractor, they had to do more than a little detective work to find out what was there before so they could bring it back. The lack of original drawings and absence of a congregation gave the design team, headed by KCM's Brian Kelly, some leeway in interpreting the best way to finish the church.

A lesser architect might have abused that freedom, but not Mr. Kelly. After studying the church's history and the work of Mr. Davis, a Baltimorean who also designed Grace Methodist Episcopal Church at Lanvale and Carrolton streets and John Wesley Methodist Church at 717 S. Sharp St., he developed a blueprint for putting back what time took away -- and then some.

"It's in the spirit of what [Frank Davis] intended," Mr. Kelly said of the restoration. "Maybe it's even better than what he could do with the budget and the resources he had at the time. The goal was to underline the previous design, to make it stronger than it was, even, but not too strong."

The architect's goals dovetailed neatly with those of the Urban League, whose leaders became enamored of the church imagery and saw value in embracing it.

"The church has always been a place of more than spiritual worship for [African-Americans]," said John Jacobs, president of the National Urban League. "It's a place where we have done our socializing and a place of empowerment for us. This project symbolizes the bond that exists between the National Urban League movement and the African-American church."

Eclectic sensibility

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Orchard Street Church was never as grand or costly as others built closer to downtown Baltimore. But what it lacked in ornament or opulence, it made up for in sheer exuberance, with distinctive colors often used as substitutes for costly materials.

The style of Orchard Street Church is considered to be a Victorian version of an Italian Renaissance design. Mr. Davis did not imitate a single Italian building of the Renaissance, but instead created a freewheeling mix of Renaissance details -- pilasters, pedimented windows, a Venetian entablature. The interior also reflects his eclectic sensibility, with such features as cast iron columns with Corinthian capitals and exposed trusses of a medieval character. The interior walls were frescoed as early as 1889, and the restoration re-creates the lively pattern that was a significant interior feature.

"The church reflects the theology of the congregation," Mr. Kelly said. "In the high Episcopal and Catholic churches of that era, you were supposed to be a worthless sinner. Their churches were designed to make you feel small. They put the fear of God in you.

"The AME churches strove for a more uplifting feeling, a happier feeling," he said. "The AME church is oriented to the word, the Bible, the preacher who gives the lesson, the gospel music. When this church was built, few of its members could even read, and worship came from their experience. The people were basically poor, but they supported the church strongly. It was the center of their life."

What is most significant about Orchard Street, Mr. Kelly said, is its comfortable scale and feel. "It has a real human quality to it," he said. "Everything in it has the feeling of something that's made by hand."

Several tenets guided the restoration process, starting with the decision to match original materials wherever possible. New mechanical systems, lights and fire protection equipment were inserted as unobtrusively as possible. Much of the mechanical equipment was hidden in the basement. About the most obvious change is the addition of pigeon-prevention spikes on the exterior windows.

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The architects employed a paint research technique called spectron microscopy to determine the original colors and stencil patterns. This information helped them select colors and details that evoke the way the church may have appeared 100 years ago. Color combinations may be a bit unusual to modern eyes -- ocher walls, purple columns and stencil patterns of red, mauve, silver and aqua, for example -- but somehow it all works well together.

Authentic colors

"All of the colors are historically authentic," meaning that they were in use in the 1880s, Mr. Kelly said. "We interpreted colors to highlight certain features. It's an interpretation. It didn't look exactly this way. We filled in some blanks, with restraint. If the building didn't tell us what was there before, we were able to investigate other buildings by the same architect, and that gave us some clues to what happened here."

Particularly striking in the sanctuary is the amount of hand craftsmanship, even to the point of imprecision in some areas. The best example is the hand-painted stenciling on the walls and ceiling, including abstracted floral and geometrical designs. When seen up close, the borders are a little uneven, and details are slightly imperfect. Like snowflakes, no two designs are exactly alike. Such intentional imprecision is a telling feature inside this sacred space -- a sign that it was restored by hand, not stamped out by a machine.

That sensitivity to the historic structure is the design team's greatest single achievement. The sanctuary was clearly a spiritual place, and the architects restored it magnificently. To their credit, though, they didn't get in the way of the space. By checking their 1992 egos at the door, they allowed the true character of the original church to come through -- humble, aspiring, with just a touch of flamboyance.

The Sunday school transformation is equally impressive. The architects took what was formerly a large auditorium and turned it into handsome office space with a mezzanine level above.

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The focal point of this space is the board room, created on the former auditorium stage. By literally putting the board members on stage like actors, the architects are subtly reminding them that when they meet, many people will be watching what they do.

Outside the church, there is more to come. The architects want )) to create a plaza across Orchard Street so school buses will have a place to drop off children. They also plan to remove part of the wall along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard so drivers will be able to see the building more easily.

Already, though, it is clear what a feat the league has pulled off. For 68 years this local organization has advocated that people of all races and creeds work together, in league, to improve the quality of urban life. Orchard Street Church is an ideal symbol of that mission.


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