Education is the new mission

The Baltimore Sun

For nearly 100 years, a certain wood frame building in Hampden was a house of worship, the place where people came to celebrate many of life's rituals and rites of passage.

Now that building is undergoing transition, from a church to a learning center for "at-risk adolescents."

The one-time confines of the Hampden Trinity United Church of Christ, a Victorian Gothic structure at 1234 W. 36th St., will be renovated and enlarged to become a new home for Learning Inc., a community-based educational program for youths ages 14 to 18.

Directors and supporters of the nonprofit organization gathered this month to mark the beginning of a $1.6 million construction project that will enable Learning Inc. to increase its enrollment from 50 to 100.

It makes Trinity the second church in Hampden to be converted to a new use in the past six years. The former Grace Methodist Episcopal Church at 1014 W. 36th St. reopened in 2001 as headquarters of a marketing agency, Gilden Integrated.

The new home of Learning Inc. was constructed a century ago for Trinity Reformed Church, a congregation of German immigrants. According to city land records, it was built by the early 1900s, when West 36th Street was known as Third Avenue. Later it was sold to trustees of the United Church of Christ.

The building features a steeple that marks the front entrance, a sloping metal roof and handsome stained glass windows. Learning Inc. was familiar with the building because the organization has been a tenant since shortly after its founding in 1998.

According to executive director Judy Friedman, the organization was launched to help youths who were unsuccessful in public schools and hanging out on city street corners. Its goal is to give teenagers "academic and life skills" so they can return to school or get a job. It's sanctioned as an "alternative" program by Baltimore's public school system.

Initially, Learning Inc. rented space in the basement while the church used the sanctuary above. By 2005, the congregation had dwindled to a handful of worshipers, who agreed to sell the building and an adjacent lot for $175,000. Learning Inc. took over the sanctuary, as well as the basement, and began planning an even larger expansion.

To decide how to modify its property, Learning Inc. hired Parameter Inc., an architectural firm headed by Chris Pfaeffle. Parameter came up with a design that preserved the church's shell and added a two-story structure to the east, with a multipurpose space in between. A smooth stucco wall along the sidewalk will unify the new and old sections.

The church's silhouette will be maintained. The new building will be contemporary in feel, with large glass windows and a gently sloping roof. The new and remodeled spaces will include classrooms, a science lab, library, computer lab, offices and meeting rooms. The upper level of the addition will line up with the floor of the renovated sanctuary. Part of one classroom will jut over the front wall, signaling the new use and providing shelter for a new main entrance.

Project architect Jim Smith said Parameter wanted to be respectful of the original building, yet balance the composition with an addition that expresses the property's change in use.

"Churches provide an interesting challenge when it comes to adaptive reuse and new additions, particularly when the new occupancy is not associated with the church," he said. "The challenge is to design a modern building that not only complements the church but clearly establishes a new identity for the building."

In designing the addition, "the attempt was to create a dialogue with the church but have it be a modern expression," Smith said. "The church still has prominence. It has its own identity. It reads as a separate building.

"It shows that contemporary architecture can sit side by side with historic architecture."

The designers made the new spaces simple, somewhat informal and almost residential in scale. They didn't want the addition to seem overly institutional or even very much like a school, Smith said, since most of the students had not done well in institutional settings.

Southway Builders is the general contractor. Learning Inc. has raised 67 percent of the construction costs and is seeking the rest through a capital campaign headed by board chair Barbara Kornblatt. Donors include the France-Merrick Foundation, Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Marian I. & Henry J. Knott Foundation, Abell Foundation, Marilyn Meyerhoff, Leroy M. Merritt and the Cordish Family Fund.

It's a good investment, said City Council member Mary Pat Clarke. "This is a place that turns lives around. It's like the Last Chance Corral, in many ways. But it's the first chance for many kids."

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