LIGHTNING DEALS LANDMARK A HIT - BUT IT'S NOT A KNOCKOUT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I was rounding the arc on Martin Luther King Boulevard the other evening when the charred and exposed timbers of the First Mount Olive Free Will Baptist Church came into view. I had been looking for the landmark, but I was astonished when its fractured and wounded silhouette form appeared.

Where a roof should have been was sky. Its magnificent and familiar spire was no more. I'd never been inside Mount Olive, but I'd had passed it so many times that its steeple and gray walls had become one of my West Baltimore landmarks.

A few minutes later, at Saratoga and Fremont, I stood before the towering old place. The stained glass seemed to be mostly unharmed, and the stout walls appeared to be solid. The brass-clad front doors and their glass windows were undamaged. The evening light shone through the roofless nave, giving a curious look to the pulpit.

Over the years, I've been to the corner for several occasions. There was the day the Lexington Terrace high-rises came down, but what I remember with a great deal more pleasure was visiting the families who had just moved into new homes built on the site of the old housing development.

This week, the neighborhood, thanks to all that rebuilding, was looking stronger and clean. I thought about the residents here and the promise they hold for a city. Many of the homes here are classic, small Baltimore rowhouses, in all states, from new to decrepit. H.L. Mencken was born in a little rowhouse in the 800 block of W. Lexington St., just a short distance from the ruined church.

Baltimore doesn't have a place called Church Hill, but I'd give that name to the collection of 19th-century religious buildings around Fremont Avenue and Lafayette Square. MLK Boulevard affords a good view of these houses of worship - among them, Macedonia and Enon Baptist churches, St. James Episcopal, St. Pius V Roman Catholic and Metropolitan United Methodist. Our Victorian ancestors liked to build good churches. Baltimore has a stack of them.

I can see why the building committees and pastors chose the little ridge that climbs through West Baltimore. It's a fantastic collection of architecture and buildings that mark Baltimore's wealth and population of the 19th century.

Tuesday's storm roared through Baltimore with little warning. It was lunchtime, and I went outside to hear the thunder show better. I'll have to confess to appreciating the entertainment value of the hailstones that hit Calvert Street outside the newsroom.

Then, later in the afternoon, after the rain had moved on, one of my newspaper colleagues smelled something on fire. At first, we thought it was the city desk. Then the fire call arrived.

There was no mistaking that terrifying smell of a major urban fire - the distinctive and very unsettling scent of old wood burning.

Then, a day later, there on the front page of this paper, faces of the congregation appeared, Their confidence jumped off the page; they were ready to conquer the damage brought by that lightning bolt.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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