Hampden church experiences a resurrection


Architects are fond of saying that "God is in the details" of buildings, as if their plans were sketched on some divine drafting table. But at the new headquarters of Jack Gilden's marketing agency, Gilden Integrated, it's not just a figure of speech.

The company just moved into the shell of a century-old Hampden church that was nearly destroyed by a four-alarm fire in 1999. Visitors enter under the same bell tower that called worshipers to service. A charred wooden beam beneath the vaulted ceiling has been left exposed as a reminder of the fire. Newly-inserted in the stained glass window above the former altar is the letter G.

"That stands for God," Gilden says, pointing to himself with mock piety.

Those are just a few of the ways designers recalled the spiritual nature of historic Grace-Hampden Methodist Episcopal Church, at 1014 W. 36th St., while transforming it for a thoroughly secular purpose at a cost of $2 million.

The result is a meticulously restored landmark for the Avenue in Hampden, and an uplifting and energizing work space for Gilden's employees.

Business opportunity

Jack Gilden's effort to bring the church back from the brink is a testament to how much one person's actions can contribute to a city's rejuvenation, architecturally and economically. He didn't wait for some deep-pocketed developer to rescue the building. He simply took the initiative and did it.

Designed by Baltimore architect George Clifton Haskell in a Romanesque Revival style and made with granite from a quarry off Falls Road, the church was built starting in 1899 and dedicated in 1904. Noteworthy features include its stone arches and belfry, horizontal banding, slate roof and stained glass in rectangular, arched and large round windows. For decades, it served as home to a Methodist Episcopal congregation, but in its final years it housed the Apostolic Truth Tabernacle Church.

After the January 1999 fire, which reportedly started in or near the furnace, the Pentecostal congregation opted to rebuild elsewhere and put the 36th Street building up for sale. The city had condemned the structure, which received extensive smoke and water damage and was missing part of its roof. There were enough pigeons inside to frighten Alfred Hitchcock.

Where others may have been turned off by the building's condition, Gilden saw an opportunity. A 36-year-old Baltimore native, he had been familiar with the building since childhood because his grandfather ran a grocery store nearby.

Gilden needed office space. The marketing agency he established in 1995 with business partner Evan Davis had grown to several dozen employees, spread over two rented locations. Gilden was looking for a signature building where they could be consolidated -- and the fire-damaged church seemed a natural. He and Davis bought it for $115,000.

"We're in a business where design and detail are everything," he told Sun reporter June Arney in 1999. "To be able to occupy a building that is this beautiful gives us the right image and the right place to come to work every day. ... There is an element here of human aspiration and looking to higher things. It folds over to what we do. Art and design are meant to be uplifting if they're done well, even in commercial applications."

Beehive hairdo-loving Hampden may not seem the most predictable location for a communications firm that specializes in representing high-tech firms, offering services such as Web design and public relations. But it's actually becoming a hotbed for marketers, with Amy Elias' Profiles office and Chuck Thompson's Shout Inc. in the Mill Centre, John Yuhanick Associates in a converted stable called the Elm, and many other graphic designers, illustrators and production companies nearby.

Preserving and creating

Gilden hired Ziger Snead Architects to design the church conversion and Hencken and Gaines to be the construction manager and general contractor. Ziger has designed several churches, but this was its first commission to transform an old one for a new use.

Principal in charge Steve Ziger and project designer Mark Treon said they tried to save as much of the church's shell and ecclesiastical accouterments as they could while creating spaces that worked for Gilden. Outside, they restored the building to its 1904 appearance, replacing parts of the fire-damaged roof and cleaning the stonework in compliance with federal preservation standards. Inside, they took cues from the earlier intervention, the fire.

The building had been divided into two halves, the sanctuary and the Sunday school. But the fire partially destroyed the wall that separated the halves.

The architects took advantage of the opening to create one unified space. They removed the middle wall entirely but left one charred horizontal beam and two diagonal braces as remnants from the fire. With the wall removed, they turned the main sanctuary into the entrance lobby and conference area, with offices around the perimeter. In the middle of the sanctuary, where the pews were, is a frosted glass cube that contains the main conference room. On the roof of this cube is a more casual lounge, or "thinking island," that lifts people practically into the church's rafters. A new mezzanine level provides more perimeter office space for the public relations division.

While the architects inserted a sculptural volume in the high-ceilinged sanctuary -- the glass cube -- they created a spatial void on the Sunday school side. Next to where the dividing wall used to be, they carved away part of the floor to create room for a new stairway that connects the main level with the basement.

The outer shell can still be perceived as the original church, with the cube and stair coming across as modern interventions. But the decision to remove the center wall and part of the floor has opened up the space as never before. From an operational standpoint, it really is Gilden, Integrated.

The owners never scrimped on materials, using plaster walls and slate roof shingles. They salvaged some of the fire-damaged wood and reused it as benches and stair steps. They selected interior colors that match those of the company's logo -- gold, black and red. Perhaps befitting Hampden, the look is decidedly nontrendy.

The office layout is conventional for the most part, a mix of private offices for the top executives, open plan seating for others, and movable tables and chairs for brainstorming sessions and other team efforts. Gilden said he wanted to be able to close his door and vent when he needed to: a church he can curse in.

Unlike some companies that have gone to great lengths to promote collaboration and encourage impromptu meetings between employees through architectural design, Gilden didn't have to do that. He figures his employees have plenty of opportunity to talk over coffee or lunch at one of the many restaurants on the Avenue, or elsewhere in the neighborhood. He sees that as one of the benefits of Hampden's small-town, Main Street atmosphere.

A small sermon

As they settle into the new building, Gilden's employees are surrounded by reminders that they're in a former house of worship -- from traces of decorative stenciling left on the walls to the restored roof trusses. As state Delegate Sandy Rosenberg observed at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, a building long known for its sermons has simply been modified to help its new occupants create "sermons of a different sort." That would make Gilden the new head preacher.

With the rebuilding work behind him, Gilden is ready with his own brand of fire and brimstone.

"The investment made by myself and my business partner Evan Davis should not be overstated," he said at the opening. "We are businessmen who have made business decisions. We are in Hampden and in Baltimore because we believe in both. But don't the communities of this great town deserve the faith of its children?

"If everybody who purported to love Baltimore actually did something for the city, it would be in a lot better shape."

Amen to that.

For a city on the rebound, nothing is more inspiring than a tangible sign of faith.

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