Long-vacant church to get new life as residences


While some of Baltimore's historic churches sit vacant and in need of new occupants, one has found a new calling.

The former Columbia Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church in Ridgely's Delight will live on as part of a new residential development called Ridgely Commons.

The 1844 structure at 657 Washington Blvd. is being transformed into four two-story condominiums, with features such as skylights, dramatic stairways and open-plan kitchens.

At the rear of the church property, builders are constructing two houses and 12 off-street parking spaces, including six garages.

These are the first new houses to rise in decades in Ridgely's Delight, a historic district just west of Oriole Park. Priced at $475,000 each, they're also the neighborhood's most expensive - a sign of its growing popularity.

Mixing old and new construction was the key to saving the former church, which had been vacant for more than a decade before construction began last year.

"To my knowledge, there's nothing like it in Ridgely's Delight - or anywhere else for that matter," said Mark Shapiro, who is developing Ridgely Commons with Mark Weinman.

Other developers had explored the idea of dividing the church down the middle and creating residences on either side. But Peter Fillat Architects proposed that Shapiro and Weinman subdivide the church so it would have four townhouse-like residences with party walls running parallel to Washington Boulevard, and access from the side.

That layout eliminated the need for corridors within the shell of the former church and gave each of four residences more space under the existing roofline, including the area under the ridge.

"Everyone else wanted to put an aisle down the middle," said architect Peter Fillat. But "Baltimore is used to townhouses. We figured, let's carve it into townhouses and make the most of the space inside."

The Washington Boulevard property is one of several former churches or synagogues in Baltimore that are no longer used for religious purposes. The former Bolton Street Synagogue at 1311 Bolton St. has been on the market since the synagogue moved to Roland Park last year. The former Sharon Seventh Day Adventist Church in the 1100 block of N. Calvert St. is also targeted for conversion to condominiums.

Washington Boulevard was known as Columbia Avenue when the church was established there. After the congregation moved out in the 1940s, it became a community recreation center, the Lions Club of Baltimore. The city acquired it in the 1980s and has been seeking developers since the early 1990s.

Until last year, the property contained several other church-related buildings, including an 1840 structure that served as the original sanctuary. They had deteriorated so badly while the property was vacant and open to the elements that they couldn't be saved, and Baltimore's preservation commission determined that they could be taken down if the front building was preserved. Removal of the deteriorated buildings created room to construct the new houses and parking spaces.

Breand Corp. of Eldersburg is the builder. Prices of residences inside the church shell start at $435,000, and all will be ready for occupancy before spring.

It's something of a surprise to walk down a narrow pathway from Washington Boulevard and discover two new houses behind the church, but that was the architect's intent. With large glass windows and sloping roofs, the houses are contemporary in design, but they aren't visible from Washington Boulevard and don't disrupt the impression of walking along a preserved 19th-century streetscape. The architects created a landscaped mid-block courtyard to separate the historic church building from the new houses.

Ridgely's Delight has benefited from the strong residential market that has helped many Baltimore communities. The opening of Oriole Park in 1992 also gave it more visibility and attention. As a result, a neighborhood that was largely known as a student-oriented rental community is now attracting upscale homeowners as well.

Those market changes influenced the final design, Shapiro said.

"Our original concept was to do apartments," he explained. "We thought the primary market would be students. As we got a better feel for the neighborhood, we sensed that it was becoming a neighborhood that preferred homeownership, so we switched our plans from apartments to townhouses. We think they will be very much in demand."

Honor for Aigburth Vale

D'Aleo & Associates of Baltimore has received a 2005 Citation of Merit award from Senior Environments Magazine for its design of Aigburth Vale, a 70- unit residence for seniors in Towson.

D'Aleo's project involved restoration of the Aigburth Vale Mansion, which dates to 1868 and has been designated a Baltimore County landmark, and construction of an addition. It is one of four projects nationally to be honored by the magazine.

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