With its ornate ceiling, pleasing proportions and 11 Louis Comfort Tiffany windows, Baltimore's Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church is a national treasure.
But these days it looks more like a construction zone, as contractors rush to finish a $1.8 million restoration in time for a rededication ceremony in early April.
Once the work is complete, the 133-year-old church at Park Avenue and Lafayette Street in Bolton Hill will have been thoroughly restored and upgraded, according to Charles Obrecht, one of two church members overseeing the work.
"This is clearly one of the great collections of Tiffany windows in the world," he said. "Now it will last for another 100 years."
The activity marks the church's first major renovation since the 1930s. It's a sign of the congregation's strong commitment to staying in Baltimore and preserving the historic building and its contents.
Much of the money raised - more than $950,000 - has gone to clean and repair the stained glass windows, including some of the largest ever created by Tiffany's studio.
Four were completely removed from the building and shipped to Minnesota for restoration. Three more were partially removed. Others were cleaned and repaired in place.
Additional work included or will include ceiling and roof repairs, new lighting, refinishing of floors and pews and repointing of exterior stonework. The church has added a columbarium on one side of the nave and is creating a labyrinth in the other.
Managing construction on a volunteer basis are Obrecht, a partner with P.F. Obrecht and Son, and Ken Mills, director of business development for Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse.
Funds were raised by the congregation and supplemented by a bequest from Jay Andrus, wife of the late E. Cowles Andrus, a physician and longtime member of the church.
Because the building is in a historic district, the project qualifies for state tax credits for historic preservation for work visible on the exterior, such as repairs to the stained glass windows.
Work began in earnest last fall, and the congregation has been worshiping in the church's assembly room since then. Church members will rededicate the restored sanctuary in a service at 1 p.m. on April 6.
Last week, crews took down scaffolding from the last of four large windows that had been completely removed and reinstalled. Contractors and volunteers are still working on the labyrinth, floors, pews and other areas.
Obrecht said one overriding goal has been to retain the church's historic character, while introducing contemporary touches such as lighting that can be dimmed.
Rubeling and Associates did some design work on the interior, including the columbarium and labyrinth. Hauser Stained Glass Studios of Winona , Minn., restored the Tiffany windows.
Sam Robinson of Valley Craftsmen Ltd. of Baltimore designed a decorative color scheme that called for a "twilight blue" ceiling color that evokes the heavens and picks up the blues of the stained glass.
The color was painted on a fiberglass fabric material applied to the ceiling to conceal small cracks. M&M; Painting was the painter.
Valley Craftsmen also applied gold leaf to the ceiling and a decorative finish to the ornamental plasterwork, which was repaired by Alex Robinson.
The church has held several sessions during which dozens of members pitched in to clean and improve the interior as well.
Growing and changing
Dedicated on Dec. 4, 1870, the building cost $150,000 to construct and was a gift of Isabella Brown. She gave the money in memory of her husband, George Brown, a son of Baltimore investment banker Alex Brown. The building was designed by N. H. Hutton and John Murdock, who were clearly influenced by noted architect H.H. Richardson and his use of rusticated stonework.
Tiffany's stained glass windows weren't part of the original building. When it opened, it had a nave but no transepts - the parts of a cross-shaped church at right angles to the long main section.
As the congregation grew and more seats were needed, transepts were designed by architect Alfred Taylor, and construction began in 1905.
The congregation decided to commission a 16-foot by 40-foot memorial window for each transept and to replace other windows with ones made of stained glass.
In all, Brown Memorial has 16 stained glass windows, the 11 made by Tiffany in 1905 and others in the style of Tiffany.
Brown Memorial is also notable for participating in a social experiment more than 40 years ago.
In 1961, with many congregation members moving to the suburbs, the church opened an offshoot in the 6200 block of North Charles Street near Woodbrook Lane in Baltimore County.
The congregants erected a fellowship hall and an office and education center first, leaving land for a sanctuary when they had enough money.
But unlike many congregations that left the city entirely, Brown Memorial did not abandon its church in Bolton Hill. For many years, the same pastor held services at both churches, driving from one to the other every Sunday morning.
Obrecht noted that one of the congregation's leading members at that time was the late developer and philanthropist James Rouse, who argued that churches in urban areas should not abandon the city.
It was that insistence from Rouse and others, Obrecht said, that kept the congregation from moving to Baltimore County altogether.
"His vision was that it wasn't the church's mission to leave the city and that we should find a way to stay," Obrecht said of Rouse.
"This church probably exists today because of him" and the arrangement with Brown Memorial Woodbrook, he added. "It allowed this church to stabilize and build up again."
Brown Memorial Park Avenue and Brown Memorial Woodbrook now operate as separate entities.
In 1994, Brown Memorial Woodbrook finally opened the sanctuary for which land had been reserved in 1960. Starting next month, the original church on Park Aveue will once again be the focus of much-deserved attention.
Seattle architect Robert Hull of the Miller/Hull Partnership will be the leadoff speaker in the spring lecture series sponsored by the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
Hull's partnership has been selected to receive the 2003 AIA Firm Award, one of the highest honors given to a professional design team.
Hull's talk begins at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive.
Tickets cost $13 per person or $8 for seniors or students with a valid ID and are available at the door.