Divine intervention at St. Ignatius Church; Renovations to the 19th-century Baltimore landmark have not only restored its original luster but improved upon it.


If Baltimore really wants to be regarded as a desirable place to live, it needs more than new restaurants and cafes, important as they are.

It needs places that nourish the spirit as well as the body.

That's why it's so heartening to see the recent transformation of St. Ignatius Church, whose future was very much in doubt less than 10 years ago.

After a $1.7 million renovation, which was unveiled to church- goers last Sunday after nearly six months of construction, St. Ignatius is ready for another cen-tury of service.

But the church hasn't merely been "restored" to its original state. It has been made better than ever -- in form and function.

Its vastly improved condition is a salve for the soul of anyone who cares about the future of the city and the civic treasures that help make it livable.

"We wanted to make a statement, to ourselves and our friends, that we're staying in the city," said the Rev. William Watters, S.J., pastor of St. Ignatius Church.

"There was a question in 1991 whether we were going to stay. We said, 'Let's take a step and show we're going to celebrate this building and invest in the church and make it even more splendid than it was before.' We wanted to make a statement that we're here; we're not going anywhere, and we want people to celebrate with us."

Built in 1856 at Calvert and Madison streets, St. Ignatius is one of Baltimore's oldest Roman Catholic churches and the only Jesuit church in the city not on an academic campus. It was constructed by the Jesuit fathers as an addition to Loyola College and High School, which were next door for many years, and was originally known as the College Church. Used as a chapel and assembly hall, "it was full all day, every day," Watters says.

The design by Louis B. Long was based on the Late Renaissance/Baroque model of the Gesu in Rome, mother church of the Jesuits. The building drew immediate praise for its refined interior, which was constructed without pillars and finished with elaborate plaster detailing in the cornices, capitals and pilasters.

By World War II, both the college and high school had moved to new campuses north of downtown, reducing use of the church. Attendance dropped further after the war as a result of a decline in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, flight to the suburbs and riots in the 1960s, but loyal parishioners and church leaders kept the doors open.

By the 1990s, the church needed an overhaul. The wiring was old; the plaster was falling; the paint fading. The heating and air conditioning systems were noisy and inefficient. The pews were not fully accessible to the disabled.

To coordinate repairs, St. Ignatius brought in the Baltimore design firm of Murphy & Dittenhafer, which specializes in church architecture and historic restoration, and Henry H. Lewis Contractors, one of the region's best construction firms.

After a detailed analysis of the church, principal- in-charge Michael Murphy and project architect Jim Sutt-ner recommended a series of steps to bring it back to life without changing its essential character.

Some steps were responses to changes in the liturgy, which since the '60s have encouraged more interaction between the clergy and parishioners. Contractors removed several rows of pews and expanded the altar area, for example, to provide needed space for services, baptisms and music.

Other alterations addressed long-standing physical problems and accessibility issues. Carpenters raised the hardwood flooring in the aisles to meet the floor level of the pews, eliminating barriers for those with disabilities.

Work crews repaired plaster detailing, including a dove design in the ceiling above the altar and a harp over the choir loft. They removed hanging lanterns that weren't original to the building and put in recessed ceiling lights. They installed quieter heating and cooling systems that won't drown out the services, and a new sound system.

One of the most dramatic changes involves the interior colors. Initially, the sanctuary was decorated with rich tints and gilding, which accentuated the ornate plasterwork. But in the 1970s, the space was painted one color, off white.

This time, the architects introduced a graduated palette of colors that enhance the interior architecture. Some accent colors, including reds and blues, pick up similar hues in the stained-glass windows installed during an 1884 redecoration.

Softer shades of olive and taupe were selected to highlight the plaster detailing and draw the eye up to the ceiling, which is dominated by a large 1884 mural, "Assumption of the Blessed Virgin into Heaven" by William Lamprecht.

The result is a space that seems more three-dimensional and more unified, with the altar area merging visually with the nave, where parishioners sit. It's also more theatrical than the off-white look, without being garish. St. Ignatius even found funds to hire Page Conservation of Washington to remove discolored varnish and restore the Lamprecht mural, making the ceiling more engaging.

The repainted space is a precursor of sorts to the treatment planned for the Hippodrome Theater on Eutaw Street, because Murphy & Dittenhafer is part of the design team for that project and is using some of the same craftsmen.

"A lot of people thought something was lost when it was painted all white," Suttner said of the church interior. "It got flatter. It looked like it was primed and ready to paint."

There's an element of theater to religious services that justifies the use of saturated colors -- especially in a building as ornate as this and at a time when historical details are valued more than they may have been 30 years ago, Murphy added.

"Church architecture has always involved hiring architects and artists from the secular world to work in a religious setting," Murphy said. "In the 1970s, this church was painted all white. Today, there's more appreciation of the richness that these places either had or are capable of. ... We don't feel the need to negate what was done in the past. We just want to add to it and clarify it and adapt it" for today's liturgy.

Another improvement can be seen at the opposite end of the building from the altar area. Unlike many churches, St. Ignatius never had a narthex, or separate space for gatherings before and after services. The architects created one by removing some pews at the rear of the church and constructing a wood and glass wall that follows the curve of the choir loft above.

Although the new wall reads as a contemporary intervention, the millwork has a richness and level of detail that seem consistent with the ornate character of the space. The windows let natural light into the narthex while enabling parishioners there to see into the worship area -- an arrangement that may prove particularly valuable when services draw overflow crowds.

The architects made several other fortuitous decisions, including moving two marble statues from the altar area to the narthex, converting a marble pedestal to a pulpit, repositioning several stations of the cross so they would have more prominence, and concealing air conditioning vents behind new woodwork.

Although the organ was not fully operative for last weekend's service, the acoustics were good. The plaster surfaces have plenty of angles and projections to keep the sound lively.

Still to come in time for a March 5 rededication are new doors leading into the nave, new doors for the Calvert Street entrances, and a hanging sign for the front of the building. The church also plans to restore an 1856 painting of St. Ignatius that hangs above the altar -- believed to be by Constantine Brumidi, artist of the rotunda at the U.S. Capitol.

One of the pleasures of working with historic churches, Murphy said, is the opportunity to introduce changes that improve a building yet are in keeping with its heritage.

The renovation of St. Ignatius may be a significant change in the church's history, Murphy said, "but we hope it fits and doesn't call out, 'I was done in 1999.' ... That's the challenging part of it as architecture: making changes that have their own integrity but also show respect for a building that is evolving."

Before construction began at St. Ignatius, many people were nervous about the proposed changes, he recalled. "We said we can make them in a way that is subtle, but still has its own effect. We said that if they were going to stay in this building, it had to evolve."

That's a valuable lesson for the city, too, as it positions itself for the new millennium. It's fine to add attractions. But it's also important to polish the gems that have been around all along -- as a way of preserving the city's architectural heritage.

St. Ignatius Church has long been a treasure -- as much a concert hall as a place of worship. As a result of the recent renovation, it once again looks and acts the part.

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