Sanctuary gives church an architectural identity


For more than three decades, the leaders of Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church have struggled to put their house of worship on the map.

Though it occupies a prominent site in the 6200 block of North Charles Street, just north of the city-county line, the church has been hidden for years behind a stand of tall pines. Even when people found the low-rise brick complex, they frequently mistook it for a school, day-care center or bingo hall.

The problem lies largely with the architecture. When they first bought the property in 1960, church members didn't have enough money to build the sanctuary they wanted. So for nearly 35 years they've held services in a "temporary 'worship center,' " a modest brick building that doubles as a fellowship hall. And they've paid the price in the form of low visibility that has hindered growth.

"We'd get calls all the time from people -- delivery men and others -- who say they can't find the church," admits the Rev. Robert W. Lawrence, pastor for the past four years. "To make matters worse, one of the maps has us down as the Chautauqua Academy, a group that used to rent space in our education building. After a while, you get an identity crisis."

But all that is about to change.

At 10:30 a.m. today, church members will gather one last time for religious services inside the old worship center. Halfway through the first hymn, they will stop singing, proceed into a new, $2.3 million sanctuary that has been built next door, and finish singing the hymn there. By the time the "Transition Sunday" service is over, the invisible church on Charles Street will be invisible no more.

After worshiping in a space that has all the warmth and character of a club basement, the 415 members of Brown Memorial Woodbrook church are taking a dramatic leap of faith. They are moving into one of the freshest and most distinctive churches to open in the Baltimore area in years, a soaring, 350-seat sanctuary that literally has been three decades in the making.

Outside, it's a powerful presence that reaches out to the community and issues a call to worship. Inside, it's a warm, light-filled space that can quiet the soul or lift the spirits.

Best of all, it finally gives the church the architectural identity it never had. And it does so without resorting to any stilted symbols or hollow stylistic cliches. Its clean, crisp, modernist imagery helps it stand out from the older buildings to which it is attached -- and even gives them a new importance.

"It's almost as if we were building a completely new church," marvels Mr. Lawrence.

Answered prayers

The church was established in 1960 as an offshoot of Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Bolton Hill. Like many congregations that built new homes in the suburbs during the 1960s, the worshipers at Woodbrook erected a fellowship hall and an education and office center first and set aside land to build a sanctuary when they could afford to do it right. But funds were slow to materialize.

Under Mr. Lawrence, the congregation has explored a variety of options, from fixing up the old worship center to selling the property and moving farther out in the county. Their architects, Steve Ziger and Leigh Anne Jones of Ziger Snead Inc., were instrumental in persuading members to build a new sanctuary on their present grounds. When an anonymous donor made a contribution that covered more than half the construction cost, the congregation's prayers were finally answered, and construction began last year.

Positioned between the education center and the fellowship hall, facing Woodbrook Lane rather than Charles Street, the new sanctuary respects the relatively quiet nature of the existing modern buildings while serving as a sculptural centerpiece for the total composition. It is also a three-dimensional metaphor for the act of worship it makes possible.

The body of the church is a massive, hand-crafted, square brick box. The roof is a thin, delicate, hovering form, draped over the base as if it were a handkerchief that fluttered down from the sky. According to Mr. Ziger, "the essence of Presbyterianism" is addressed in the dialogue between the base and the roof. He suggests they represent "the rational and the spiritual, the earth and the sky, knowledge and faith."

Although the curving roof seems to have an unusual shape, it's actually a simple "barrel vault," not uncommon in ecclesiastical architecture. But it's rotated on the diagonal and tilted 45 degrees so the high point is above the chancel.

"The concept was to accentuate the contrast between this light, sculptural roof, representing 'heavenly inspiration,' and the solid, anchored base, representing 'earthly craft,' " Mr. Ziger explains. "The best sacred spaces are those in which you feel the tension between heaven and earth."

Between these two elements lies a third -- the realm of light and art. It is articulated on the building by large clerestory windows patterned with an opaque enamel paint called "frit," which creates a filtered light. The frit stops just below the curving roof line, creating a ribbon of clear glass that reinforces the hovering quality of the roof. It also fills the interior with a subdued luminescence that gives it a soft, ethereal feel. That seems especially appropriate given the windows' symbolic role as mediator between heaven and earth.

Inside the sanctuary, an unconventional seating plan makes the most of the building's square shape. The raised chancel is located in the northwest corner, rather than flat against one wall. The entrance is at the opposite corner, forcing worshipers to enter and experience the space on the diagonal. Curving oak pews and radiating aisles reinforce the chancel as the focus of community worship.

The circle is a traditional symbol of unity. The semi-circular seating plan fulfills Mr. Lawrence's goal of church-in-the-round" as possible. "We didn't want one of those bowling alley churches," the pastor said. "We wanted people to be able to see each other in worship and not just the backs of heads."

As designed by the architects and the organ builder, Holtkamp Organ Co. of Cleveland, the organ pipes form a beautiful sculptural element for the sanctuary. Floors are slate; walls are made of oversized Norwegian brick, and the ceiling is a light-colored wood deck with curved and tapered steel beams. Theatrical lighting illuminates the chancel while small fixtures hover over the congregation, reinforcing the vault of the roof. A large wooden cross hangs over the choir.

The result is a space that is at once intimate and grand, serene and awe-inspiring. With only eight rows of pews, no one will be farther than 30 feet from the chancel. Graceful furnishings designed by Ziger Snead -- a pulpit, lectern, and table -- provide welcome touches of hand craftsmanship.

Yet because the space is perceived on the diagonal, it seems much larger than if all the seats had been facing one of the four walls. The large windows and tilted ceiling -- 42 feet from the floor at the highest point -- draw the eye upward, adding to the sense of spaciousness.

The curved ceiling is more than a little reminiscent of naval architecture, as well. "In Latin, the root for the word 'nave' is the same as the root for the word 'boat,' " Mr. Ziger said. "There is a bit of a metaphor in the overturned boat -- the underside of the roof being the shell and the beams being the ribs."

Air of transcendence

One of the toughest challenges for a modern architect designing ecclesiastical buildings is to imbue a structure with an air of transcendence and spirituality without falling back on traditional forms or iconography that would seem disingenuous today.

Ziger Snead was able to do this through artful manipulation of space and light. Unlike so many modern churches that don't feel like churches, this one provides a comfortable backdrop for a wide range of events, from weddings to funerals. The muted light, more than anything else, helps give it a transcendent presence.

Although acoustical engineers were involved in the design from the beginning, the quality of sound in the new space can't fairly be judged until after today's service, because the experts haven't finished fine-tuning it. In preliminary tests, however, the hard surfaces have made for a very lively sound -- much different from the voice-muffling conditions in the worship center.

The sanctuary is linked to the existing buildings by a covered walk, partially enclosed to create a large narthex. The main entrance is marked by a 55-foot-high bell tower, visible from Charles Street. Within the tower is a brass ship's bell -- another subtle nautical reference.

"Typically, you have a steeple on top of the church," Mr. Ziger explained. "Here, we decided to separate them. We're playing the verticality of the tower against the sculptural quality of the sanctuary. But the tower acts in the same way a steeple does, calling up to God and marking the entry."

Henry H. Lewis Contractors Inc. was the general contractor. Klepper Marshall King Associates of White Plains, N.Y., was the acoustical engineer; and Morabito Consultants Inc. was the structural engineer.

Down to earth

If there is any drawback to the design, it's that it could have been even stronger.

Although the sanctuary is very powerful in its simplicity, the symbolism would have been even more potent had the building been set off as a free-standing object, rather than knitted into the existing complex.

The sculptural quality of the sanctuary also may have been shown off to better advantage had it simply been pulled away slightly from the older buildings and set at an angle to them.

But that's not what this down-to-earth congregation wanted. Having chosen to stay put, they didn't want to negate their old buildings entirely. They simply wanted to make that total composition more functional and visible, without being too flashy about it. The design of the new sanctuary does that.

Another advantage of this contextual approach is that by PTC establishing links between the new building and the older ones, the architects gave the worshipers more than a new sanctuary. In effect, they gave them a completely integrated campus.

During last week's service, Christian education director Susan Saunders explained to the children assembled in the old worship center that they would soon be meeting in a new setting. She prepared them for the move by saying that if the church is a house of worship, Brown Memorial Woodbrook has just added a new room. While the fellowship hall could be likened to a den in one's home, she said, the new sanctuary is closer to a "formal living room" -- quieter, dignified, more public in its use.

While one may lament that living rooms are relegated to honorific roles in American homes today, her comparison was on the mark. Just as a living room becomes the setting for momentous events in a family's life, the new sanctuary is a wonderful place for the congregation to begin a new chapter in its spiritual life.

As construction was proceeding last spring, Mr. Lawrence vowed to contact the cartographers who left Brown Memorial Woodbrook out of their last edition and ask that it doesn't happen again. Today, he no longer needs to worry whether the church will be on the map. With its soaring new sanctuary, it already is.

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