The little wooden chapel in Hannah More Park was built on the cheap to mimic grand Gothic stone and has survived nearly 150 years, long enough to see Reisterstown transformed from a sleepy country hamlet to a bustling suburb.
But 25 years after Baltimore County bought the Reisterstown landmark to save it from developers, it's in need of saving again. Not only does it have a weathered, leaky roof and peeling paint, but, its admirers say, it has suffered for years from a lack of purpose.
Once a centerpiece of the community, it has been shut up for years, its stunning stained-glass memorials shrouded in protective plastic and its soaring oiled-pine roof beams hidden from the public eye.
Restoration of the church and two neighboring school buildings that were once part of the old Hannah More Academy had been on the county's to-do list for some time, but when lifelong Reisterstown resident James T. Smith Jr. was elected county executive, the project became a top priority.
Smith has announced the county will spend $1.2 million to spruce up the three structures, in the hope that they will serve as Reisterstown's focal point for 100 years more. The renovations are expected to begin in the summer.
"I'm glad Jim Smith has jumped on it," said county historian John McGrain. "It would have gone to hell if we hadn't elected someone from Reisterstown."
Smith was just getting into politics in 1978 when he helped organize the petition drive that convinced then-County Executive Theodore G. Venetoulis that the county should buy the old Hannah More buildings and turn the grounds into a park, rather than allow developers to raze them. The academy had closed a few years before, and commercial developers were itching to get their hands on such a prime piece of real estate, Venetoulis recalled.
"We just felt it had such an interesting history that we ought to hold onto it," he said. "I've always felt it's the type of thing the county ought to do a lot more of. There are not a lot of great places left in some of the older areas."
According to McGrain's research, the chapel is one of the best examples in Maryland of the Gothic Revival style of the 1840s and 1850s.
The ecclesiology movement of the day dictated that the style of medieval English country churches was the only proper environment for worship. But many small country congregations couldn't afford to build in stone or brick, so enterprising architects mimicked the style with wood-frame structures, like the one built at Hannah More in 1853.
At the time, Episcopalians were obsessed with the precise architectural details of their chapels, McGrain said. In researching the church, he found an 1854 article on its design in a New York publication called The Church Journal, which printed more than 700 words describing in painstaking detail the heights of the walls, the angles of the gables and the dimensions of support beams.
The chapel - on Reisterstown Road, just north of Franklin Boulevard - underwent major renovations in 1929, when the portion containing the altar was lengthened, a brick aisle was laid, kneelers were added to the pews and the original, simple stained-glass lancet windows were replaced with ornate memorials, mostly for the family of the first chaplain.
The church was deconsecrated when the county bought it, and for years it has been open only for occasional tours.
County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a north county Republican who has an office in one of the school buildings, carries a key to the church in his car so he can stop by whenever he is in the neighborhood. But he said finding a way for the chapel to become a more prominent part of community life could be difficult.
The ideal purpose for it, he said, is religious, but church-and-state rules preclude the county from using it that way.
"With the law being what it is, I don't know what we can do with it," McIntire said. "It's distinctly Christian, except there's a Star of David in that stained-glass window up front, but everything else is distinctly Christian."
The school buildings house a senior center and Health Department offices.
Regardless of their use, the buildings form an important landmark for the Reisterstown community, Smith said.
Smith said that when he re-entered political office as executive, after 16 years as a judge, he asked if there were any plans on the books to restore the buildings. There were, but nothing immediate.
"I've been watching the deterioration for some time and was pretty concerned," Smith said. "The more deterioration you have to correct, the more expensive it is and also the worse it is for the building. I did give it a little more priority than it had before."