TWO YEARS AGO, St. James Episcopal Church was nearly destroyed by fire on Father's Day.
This month, it is being hailed as a symbol of spiritual and physical renewal, after a nearly $2 million restoration that brought it back to life.
The English Gothic Revival landmark, the first of five churches built on Baltimore's Lafayette Square, has been singled out for two prestigious awards for its redesign and restoration.
The Maryland Historical Trust chose the building to receive one of two "project awards" in its annual preservation awards program. And judges for the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects named it one of four building projects to receive an honor award in the AIA's 1995 awards program.
The Rev. Michael Curry, rector of the 900-member congregation, said he's delighted that the restoration is receiving attention because he believes the church is a stabilizing force in the area.
"What we were trying to accomplish here was both restoring an historic building and renewing a living community. Restoring a House of God restores hope," he said.
Built in 1867 as the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, the Lafayette Square landmark has been home for the St. James congregation since 1930.
Founded in 1824, the St. James congregation was the first Episcopal church established by blacks south of the Mason-Dixon line.
The church's Beaver Dam marble exterior was topped by a Peach Bottom slate roof. Its interior is defined by massive exposed wooden hammer trusses, supporting a random width tongue and grove wood ceiling. The walls were covered with simple wood wainscoting. Light filters in through 17 stained glass windows, including two by the Tiffany Studios.
The fire began after lightning hit the church at the base of a stone cross on the roof. Before it was extinguished, a third of the roof was open to the sky, and the church's massive trusses were charred with ash. Pews and interior finishes sustained fire, smoke and water damage as did portions of the stained glass.
Kann & Associates was the architectural firm that guided the restoration effort, with Roger Katzenberg as principal in charge. Other design team members were Donald Kann, James Miller and Sharon Fleming. C. Dudley Brown was a consultant on the interior finishes. Essex Construction Co. was the construction manager, and Ned Silver was the responsible for woodwork restoration.
Starting in mid-1994, the design team launched a two-phase restoration effort, the cost of which was covered by insurance settlements and private donations.
The architects approached the restoration with the same painstaking attention to detail that made the recent restoration of the Orchard Street Church a success. They sought to match the original stain and shellac finishes of the wood, and scraped away layers of paint to determine the original finishes.
But they also introduced certain new design elements that reflected the wishes of current congregation members, such as a stenciled border whose design echoes the form of an Ethiopian Cross donated to the church after the fire. A new patterned carpet was installed, and new wooden pews were installed to complement the restored chancel furnishings.
"We used history as the basis for what we did, and it played a big part," Mr. Katzenberg said. "But we reinterpreted the space in light of the current congregation. We personalized it for them.
"We worked within the framework of the original architect's vision to create something that is just as fresh now as it was when it first opened."
Congregation members were serious about preserving the building's history and architectural character, he added. "They were committed to doing this first-class and not cutting corners or demeaning the building in any way."
Father Curry said the restoration was a multicultural effort, involving whites and blacks, Christians and Jews.
"It was rebuilt by many hands," he said. "That's how the city is going to be rebuilt, by all the people of God coming together and rebuilding it."
Father Curry said he is grateful to the firefighters who worked valiantly to save as much of the church as possible.
He recalled one firefighter asking for permission to break a stained glass window, while the fire still was raging, to let in oxygen. The idea was to get the fire to change direction and not spread as quickly toward the altar.
"I said, 'You've gotta do what you've gotta do,' " Father Curry said.
"The point is, they didn't want to see a church burn down. They are signs of hope for a community. And because that one rose window was sacrificed, the others lived. The building was saved."
Other projects honored by the Baltimore Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in its 1995 Design Awards Program are:
* Fielding Way Public Housing in York, Pa., by Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects.
* Lyric Opera House addition, an unbuilt complex of offices, rehearsal spaces and other backstage areas, by Richter Cornbrooks Gribble Inc.
* The Shot Tower/Market Place Metro station, by DKP Joint Venture and Daniel Mann Johnson Mendenhall.
* Residential winners are projects by Studio 3; Muse Architects; Kaplan Sutton & Associates; O'Neil & Manion; and Timothy Duke and Julie Gabrelli.
The awards will be presented during a ceremony Oct. 20 at the Columbus Center in Baltimore. The event is open to the public, but admission is $35, paid in advance. For information, call the AIA at 625-2585.
The Maryland Historical Trust's Preservation Awards will be presented Nov. 3 at the Silo Factory in Frederick. A second project award will be given for the restoration of the Belair Mansion in Bowie. Service awards will go to longtime preservationists James G. Boss and Gail Chardon Rothrock; both of Prince George's County; the Mayor and City Council of Hagerstown; and the Williamsport Preservation Training Center in Washington County.