For sale — The auctioneer stood at the pulpit yesterday where a minister once did and preached the gospel of opportunity, hoping to convert his congregation of the curious into true buyers.
For sale -- the chance to claim a once-powerful Ashburton church, an imposing structure of stone once known to some as "the cathedral of Baltimore."
Though some in the crowd had their eyes on individual pieces of the former St. Mark's United Methodist Church -- the breathtaking stained glass that, panel by panel, depicts the Jesus story, the nearly 100-year-old pipe organ, the elaborately carved panels and doors -- the most serious bidders only wanted the whole Gothic package.
After a bidding barrage that seemed to last just seconds, a serene California retiree walked away with the property for $705,000 -- a figure one Washington developer declared "a steal."
Auctioneer Dean V. Kruse started the bidding at $300,000 -- the total that people had offered to pay for the windows and details, or what Kruse called the church "artifacts." If people bid more for everything together, that's the way it would be sold.
"This is for everything," Kruse began in his cajoling salesman way. "We have $300,000 bid. OK, now we have a $500,000 bid. Can we get 600 for everything? 600? 600? OK? Yes! We have 600 -- is there 700?"
Almost as soon as the calls of persuasion began, almost as soon as the price began to climb, it became clear that a stoic gentleman in a windbreaker, sitting calmly at the aisle end of a pew, was the man to beat among the crowd of about 50.
Someone bid 675. The stoic threw down 685.
"This is where the bidding really counts," Kruse bellowed, as a man on a cell phone indicated that he would pay $700,000.
A beat later, the stoic blinked his willingness to go higher. "We're gonna sell it now!" Kruse all but yelled. "This is final. ... Mr. Gibbs? God bless."
Sold for $705,000, plus a 7 percent premium, to the stoic: Dennis Gibbs of the San Francisco Bay Area, who acknowledged afterward, with a slight grin, that his drop-dead cutoff was "probably a little bit before that."
The retired banker considers himself something of a preservationist and definitely a collector. He has picked up historic estates in Virginia and a manor house in Washington state.
"When someone says, 'What do you want to buy that for?' -- that's when I look at them," he said.
Gibbs, who also buys a lot of cars, saw the church sale featured in an auction company brochure.
He is hard-pressed to say exactly what attracted him to the building, all the way across the country from his home.
"It's just," he guessed, "the architecture and the possibility."
He said he has not figured out what to do with the sprawling property at Garrison Boulevard and Liberty Heights Avenue. He had not even walked its warren of hallways, climbed all of the stairs or peeked into half of the classrooms, offices and who-knows-what hiding in the building's shadows.
"I buy things and let things develop -- that's what I do," he said after the gavel's final slam. "Whatever's best for the community and the building -- that's what it will be."
The original church went up in 1909, and a huge addition joined it about 20 years later, during the Depression.
In St. Mark's heyday, the church boasted about 800 members, making it one of the city's largest congregations.
But as the century ticked on, the neighborhood's demographics began to change. The white church members eventually found themselves in a predominantly black part of town. In 1971, according to a Sun article, the church had lost most of its members and had just hired its first black minister to try for broader appeal.
The church elders had to take out loans to keep the cavernous space heated through the winter.
By the time St. Mark's merged with Gwynn Oak United Methodist in March 2005, the church had dwindled to about 40 members -- more of a seniors coffee klatch than a congregation -- barely enough to fill the first long wooden pew.
"Things were changing," said Charlotte Pat Harracksingh, whose great-aunt worshiped there. "And they still had that air here of the traditional way."
In December, the last of St. Mark's old parishioners filed back into the church for a chance to say goodbye. They called it a healing service, Harracksingh said, because it hurts to see it go.
"I love the windows," she said. "If I could wake up every day and look at these windows, it would make all the spiritual difference in the world."
Proceeds from yesterday's sale will benefit Gwynn Oak's building trust.
"This was a beautiful edifice here," said the Rev. Richard Wright, St. Mark's former pastor, "but in the final analysis, it's about ministry. If we're not ministering to the community, then the community isn't benefiting from the church being here."
Vernon Richardson of Reisterstown attended the auction hoping the building could become a home for his church, which has been renting space on Liberty Road. "We wanted this," he said. "We was hoping it would go cheaper than that -- we weren't expecting this many people. With God's will, we will get it still."
Washington developer Michael Minkoff wanted to win the building to convert to condominiums. He said he would have paid more than Gibbs but didn't realize the auction was ending because there was no "going once, going twice, sold."
"It was a steal, I'll tell you that," he said.
Ford Greene, a Baltimore architect, was not bidding, but he wanted to see what would become of the landmark. He figured that the depressed state of the neighborhood would make it hard to do much with it. "It's a hard sale," he said, "but a beautiful building."
Auctioneer Bill Harter said the sale fell short of expectations -- financially anyway, what with the property appraised for $2.5 million.
But the right person got it, he said, because Gibbs is not going to junk it for parts.
"Whenever you hear someone is going to tear down a building like this and put in a CVS or a Wal-Mart, it's a tragedy," Harter explained. "This building is like a painting. It's something that cannot be reproduced."