God may have created the heavens, but Lovely Lane United Methodist Church is restoring them.
High on scaffolding above the sanctuary, artists are putting the finishing touches on a 360-degree mural of the night sky, complete with billowing clouds and faraway constellations.
This celestial ceiling is a signature feature of the 1887 landmark, considered the mother church of American Methodism.
Its re-creation represents a key milestone in the 23-year campaign to restore the church, the first designed by noted architect Stanford White and an anchor of Baltimore's Old Goucher Historic District.
For the past nine months, congregation members have been worshipping in a chapel on the grounds while the interior of the main sanctuary is restored.
The scaffolding is due to come down this week, and the construction team is cautiously optimistic that the sanctuary could be ready for services by late fall.
When it reopens, it will be the first time in 100 years that the interior has looked the way Stanford White intended. "Everything is being taken back to the 1880s design," said restoration architect Roger Katzenberg, of Kann & Associates. "Nothing has been radically altered."
White "made all the right decisions -- placing man in the context of the heavens," said historic paint consultant Matthew Mosca. "When the sanctuary is restored, the building will once again be a national treasure."
The church at 2200 St. Paul St. is the fifth building of the congregation that began meeting in 1772 near Redwood and Calvert streets. The St. Paul Street building was begun in 1884 as the centennial monument to the founding of American Methodism in 1784.
Lovely Lane's first pastor, Francis Asbury, was elected the first bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America at its inaugural convention, which was held at Lovely Lane Meeting House. That's why Lovely Lane is called the mother church of American Methodism.
Kann & Associates, a specialist in historic preservation, is guiding the restoration effort. Henry H. Lewis is the general contractor. Hayles & Howe was responsible for the plasterwork. Thomas Moore Studios of Baltimore is the painter.
The mural covers an elliptical dome ceiling above the sanctuary. It depicts the night sky as it appeared at 3 a.m. on Nov. 6, 1887 -- the day the church was dedicated. One side shows the dawn about to break, the other side looks more like dusk.
For visitors, the mural gives the effect of being in a building that has no roof, and is therefore open to the sky. The suggestion is that there is nothing between them and the heavens -- and that they are that much closer to God.
This is actually the fourth depiction of heaven at Lovely Lane. The 1887 version was repainted around 1900 and then covered in the 1930s by a painted canvas, with stars stenciled on.
According to Katzenberg, it was unusual for a church ceiling to depict the heavens.
"This particular motif was popular at the time, especially in theaters, but as far as churches were concerned, it's something of a novelty," he said.
For his first church design, White "was trying to break the mold of a traditional church, with pews and balconies that created more of a theatrical environment," Katzenberg said. "It was more like a theater than a church."
The mural needed restoration because the ceiling had been damaged by leaks in the years since the canvas surface was applied. The church put on a new terra cotta-tile roof in 2001, protecting the interior and clearing the way for the ceiling to be restored.
The tile roof replaced one of asphalt shingle that was put on in the 1980s -- a temporary measure -- and already needed replacement.
Before the mural could be restored, the artists and historians peeled away the canvas to see where the ceiling needed repair and what they could learn about the earlier murals.
Hayles & Howe applied a new coat of plaster over lathe. Moore Studios began re-creating the mural, based on photos and other historic documents.
It's a painstaking process to replicate the heavens. The sky is painted with acrylic latex. The stars are made with a metallic substance containing bronze powder. The original position of each star was carefully recorded and then transposed to the new plaster surface. One of the final images to go back up was a depiction of the Milky Way.
Mosca said the paint work is excellent. He noted that the painters are improvising elements such as clouds yet staying true to the spirit of the original mural. They've even replicated a row of flames around the lower edge of the dome.
"The colors that were in the ceiling in 1887 are the colors that they're using today. It's really going to give a sense of dusk and dawn."
With a cost of $1.2 million, the sanctuary restoration is the most expensive single phase of the church repair project, which began with a state-funded historic structures report in 1980. Other work has included cleaning of the church's exterior, restoration of the church tower and renovation of the gymnasium and a large meeting hall. Still to come is restoration of the chapel, the main entry, two side vestibules and the vestry.
The entire project will cost $5 million to $6 million. Money has come from a variety of sources, including the France-Merrick Foundation, a large private bequest and tax credits for historic preservation from the state of Maryland.
Though the church could have saved money with a less elaborate mural, there was never any question that the congregation would restore the heavens, said the Rev. Nancy Nedwell, Lovely Lane's pastor.
"We're doing it because it's the right thing to do," she said.
Nedwell, who came to Lovely Lane in 1999, notes that the restoration work has energized the congregation, which has about 200 members.
"This is such a great project," she said. "They've been working on it for more than 20 years. They see this as a gift to the community."
Nedwell said she was pleased to learn that the dome is sound, despite the leaks. She had heard warnings that Lovely Lane was about to fall down, if it wasn't repaired, but says those warnings were overstated. "It's an incredibly stable building," she said. "Structurally, it's in fabulous shape."
The pastor added that she would love to have the congregation back worshipping in the sanctuary by Christmas, if at all possible. But, "when you work on something for 20-plus years, you can't get caught up in a month or two."
Along with the restored ceiling, the side walls have been painted the color they were in 1887. According to Mosca, the original color scheme called for dark brick-red walls that became increasingly lighter near the ceiling. Over the years, he said, the church painted the walls more of a creme color, making the "sky" darker than the building below.
"When they painted the walls a creme color, they inverted it," Mosca said. "It didn't make any sense. Now it will get progressively lighter. It will suddenly make sense, like a Roman amphitheater, open to the sky."
The church was originally lit by flames from gas jets and electrified just after 1900. The restoration team has installed lamps with bulbs that can closely approximate the light levels of the old gas flames. Designers are even experimenting with the idea of making the lights flicker.
Once the paint work is complete and the scaffolding comes down, the contractor will put back the pews and other woodwork that are being restored. The organ pipes are getting a coat of gold leaf.
In its scope and attention to detail, the restoration of Lovely Lane invites comparison to another ambitious church project in Baltimore, restoration of the Basilica of the Assumption on Cathedral Street.
In that effort, designers want to take the 1821 church interior back to the appearance intended by its original architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe -- by undoing modifications completed in the intervening years.
Mosca said Baltimore is fortunate to have so many fine 19th-century churches to restore.
Lovely Lane is "one of the finest churches in the nation," he said. "The architecture is superb. It's such an unusual interior for a church. It works beautifully as an experience."
"I would say Lovely Lane is easily in the Top 10 of Baltimore's architectural treasures -- not only because of the participation of Stanford White, who was one of the finest architects in the United States, but because of its integrity," Katzenberg said. "It's an intact structure.
"Unlike the Basilica, which is undergoing a major reconstruction to get back to its roots, it was all here. We have all the pieces. Everything is original. What we're trying to do it put back what Stanford White wrought."