HOPE FLOATS

The Baltimore Sun

Frostburg-- --The steel skeleton is more visionary art than ark. Still, a visitor can make out the arklike bowed front of Pastor Richard Greene's roadside attraction off Interstate 68. Three stories high and set in concrete, the steel structure shares a foothill with its loyal billboard: "Noah's Ark Being Rebuilt Here."

Nothing, however, has been built in seven years.

"I feel terrible about it. I've asked God, 'Why are you taking so long to build this ark?' " says Greene, a genial, coat-and-tie preacher who appeared for a time with Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson on the TV circuit in the 1980s. But religious programming wasn't Greene's mission; he had an ark project off the National Freeway in Western Maryland. At 70, Greene is still on the job.

"People drive by and ask me when am I going to finish this thing," he says. "Hey, when they give me the money I'll finish this thing."

Beginning in 1974, Greene says, God told him to build a replica of Noah's ark to signal the end of days and the return of Jesus, as told in the Old Testament. This wouldn't be an actual ark - no two-of-a-kind animals, clean or otherwise. This would be an ark schoolhouse and church built to nothing short of biblical proportions. Tourists would flock to Frostburg to see the ark.

Two years later, a groundbreaking was held Easter Sunday at the site of Greene's small church. At first, there was nothing but a hole in the ground, the ark sign and wildfire gossip in Frostburg about the church with the hole in the ground and sign. The concrete was poured in 1977. The steel came 22 years later.

Today, the project's $7 million cost has climbed to $30 million. Greene's 150-member evangelical church, God's Ark of Safety, has faithfully contributed money, as have people all over the world. More than $1.2 million has been spent, but finishing the first phase will cost an additional $10 million. The church's building fund is $240,000.

"I'm praying for millions of dollars," says Greene. But it would take a miracle to raise $30 million.

A miracle, precisely.

Like 'Evan Almighty'

Would there be a nicer place for an ark?

Frostburg - home to 18 churches and just 8,100 people, a state university, a scenic railroad, soapbox derbies and chili cook-offs - has also been the year-round home of Richard Greene's ark. In Maryland's panhandle, 150 miles west of Baltimore, Frostburg usually flies under the media radar. There was that home-wrecking tornado of 1989, and a year later a telesales company pulled out 100 telemarketing jobs because residents were just too nice to bother people around dinnertime. The telemarketing story made international news.

Around here, the ark became yesterday's news.

"When you see something every day, it kind of blends in with the landscape. It's not unique anymore," says John Kirby, Frostburg's city administrator.

Then, the Steve Carell comedy movie, Evan Almighty, was released this summer, and the story of a modern man called to build an ark hit home in Frostburg. Greene, not a theater man, did see the show. The movie was considered a bust, but Greene, for one, loved the part when God tells Evan to build the ark. Evan says people will call him crazy. "That's exactly what I thought!" Greene says.

People stop again to look at the steel shell off Cherry Lane by the converted Chevrolet showroom that is Greene's church. New people ask the old questions. Where is it? Has there been any progress? Will the ark ever be done? The relationship between the town and its most curious feature remains one of amusement, embarrassment and affection.

"I'm smitten by the ark," says Jessica Muessen on the front step of Independent Ink, a body-art studio on Main Street. Muessen, a 29-year-old Frostburg native, also saw the Carell movie, which only renewed her civic interest in Greene's unfinished work.

"When I have friends in town, I always take them over to the ark," she says. Her local friends tease her about her regular ark tours. "But it's the highlight of the trip to Frostburg. Hey, if that's all we got, then I'm going to go with it."

Across the street at Misty Blue Fashions, beauty-store owner Edie Whitaker Moran, another native, shakes her head and smiles. She's not smitten with the ark. Seems to her a smaller facility could have been built a long time ago. Seems they bit off more than they could chew over there, she says. Year after year, just steel beams to look at. Embarrassing.

"People still stop by and ask where Noah's ark is," Moran says. "I'm ashamed to tell them because there's nothing there."

She tells them anyway. Even the faint promise of a 450-foot church ark can be good for business.

On Main Street, the Princess Restaurant has been in the Pappas family for three generations. Harry Truman ate here, they say. George Pappas, 57, has followed the ark project since the beginning. He knows Pastor Dick - the man comes in for breakfast. The problem, Pappas says, is the church always relied on contributions. It should have borrowed money in the first place, but maybe banks weren't willing to loan money for the ark facility. (Greene says they couldn't get bank loans.) Still, Pappas believes an ark would be good for almighty tourism.

"We'd love to see it finished. It would be a heck of a tourist attraction," Pappas says. As a businessman, though, he still doesn't see the numbers adding up. "I don't know what kind of miracle would happen before they could raise the money, but it would take a miracle."

The whole idea requires great faith and good humor.

"I have a farm where I raise alpacas. I also have horses and goats," says Barb Buehl, executive director of the Allegany County Chamber of Commerce in nearby Cumberland. "If my animals start heading to Frostburg, I know we're all in trouble."

Converting cubits

"And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits."

Genesis 6:15

After making the cubit conversion, Greene determined his ark should be 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high. In 1976, his church voted to build essentially a horizontal high-rise in the shape of a big boat; in favor of the pastor's vision, his congregation in 1974 voted down spending $2,000 for new pews and lights. The commissioned architectural sketches were inspired. But talented people can design and draw about anything. Building the ark has always been something else.

As Greene envisioned, the ark-shaped facility would include a 2,000-seat sanctuary, collegiate-sized gym, convention hall, hotel rooms, 300-seat IMAX theater, K-12 Bible school, restaurant, museum and gift shop. It would not float.

Three decades and three architectural companies later, Greene called Steve Chaney of Chaney Architects in Cumberland. Since 2005, Chaney has been the latest in the "pay-as-you-go" line of engineer designers employed by God's Ark of Safety.

"You have to take it seriously, even if it's a project to design an ark," says Chaney, whose firm has done several thousand dollars' worth of work on the project.

His company has designed an ark-shaped facility in three phases; the first phase, with the concrete and steel structure, is 30 percent completed. The artist's renderings are prominently framed at God's Ark of Safety and featured in its newsletters. "Ark Cover Up!" reads a June item about the next phase. Enclosing the steel superstructure could be finished in five years and cost about $3 million, Chaney says. Assuming the steel is still up to standards.

The project is like building the pyramids, Chaney imagines. "We call it ARK-i-tecture," he says. "Seriously, we hope to fulfill their dreams and do our part - as long as they continue to pay, which they have done religiously every month."

Howard Demory, a retired dairy farmer in West Virginia, has been a faithful contributor. He's 82 and still gives money to the project - not the $10,000 he gave twice in the 1970s but the occasional $100. He visits the church every year. Hasn't and won't turn his back on the ark, he says.

"It's too late to turn back now," he says.

For other believers, the point isn't the ark - it's Greene's ministry. Alan Snyder, 67, a church member from Cumberland, remembers meeting the pastor in 1986. He had heard, of course, about the ark thing off the highway.

"I thought Greene was a nut case, plain and simple," Snyder says.

He and his wife, Barbara, wanted to sell Greene an alarm system for the church. During those negotiations, Snyder mentioned his back problems to the pastor, who offered to "anoint me with oils, and maybe God will heal your back." Why not, Snyder thought. If the preacher likes me, he'll buy an alarm system. So, both men prayed together and Greene laid his hands on Snyder's back.

"I'm not sure how you want to say this in the newspaper, but 10 years of pain left my back instantly. I'm telling the truth. I'm telling you what happened," Snyder says.

(Greene says he can't heal anything - it's God working through him, and God has given him a specialty: back problems.) Snyder and his wife still donate money to the ark project, but the point isn't whether it's ever built.

"I don't care one way or another," he says.

A former secretary for God's Ark of Safety, Debbie Ross was a church member for 20 years and also still donates to the ark. Even the shell of its imagined self remains for her a symbol of God's love and the return of Jesus.

"I guess it doesn't make sense," Ross says, "but things of faith don't always make sense."

Ark enthusiasts

The curious keep coming - the church groups, visitors to Frostburg, interstate travelers and occasionally reporters, all still drawn to Greene's roadside attraction.

"We have a tour group this Sunday," says Greene, a former General Motors analyst from Michigan.

It's a sticky summer day, but the pastor keeps on his pale-blue suit with its green ark lapel. Ark imagery abounds at the church. His office is decorated with ark bookends, an ark mirror, signs ("Ark for Sale, Only Used 40 Days and Nights"), an ark music box and an ark jewelry box sent by a couple from Ohio. The church sells ark cassettes, DVDs and postcards.

Despite the ark's cost, the pastor doesn't flinch. He answers questions with Bible verses. He stays on message even when the inevitable question is raised. Did he ever consider building a smaller ark that would have been finished by now?

"Naw," he says. "The vision came to me to build it this way."

Not everyone bought his vision. In 1974, Greene's 20-member church was a member of the Illinois-based Church of the Brethren, an evangelical Protestant denomination with 1,000 churches nationwide. His modest church grew, as did his immodest plans for the ark, which became a divisive issue by the early 1980s. Greene says Church of the Brethren officials didn't want the denomination to be associated with his ark fundraising.

"Are there better uses for that money? Should that money be going to hunger or disaster relief?" says Sheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, a spokeswoman for the Church of the Brethren. "We're practical people. We might get impatient if there is no practical reason for what we're doing - which is to serve the needs of people."

By 1981, some people had become impatient. Greene's congregation voted to split. Along with his followers, he broke ties with the Church of the Brethren and formed an independent church where nondenominational contributions could be made.

They set up church in a strip shopping center in Frostburg. The other group stayed with the Church of the Brethren and hired a new pastor. Some believed Greene had pocketed ark donations for personal use. His house was egged twice; his home was called so much he had the phone tapped. A disgruntled former church member was revealed as the harassing caller, Greene says.

After 30 years, the money accusations still sting.

"I've never used ark money for personal reasons. But the gossip will keep happening until I die," says Greene, who draws a $30,000 salary from the church.

Greene, who has long left the ministerial duties to an associate pastor, has been the fundraising arm of the church. For many years, he spent seven months on the road shuffling from city to city raising money. His travel expenses are still paid from the ark's building fund.

Unlike Jim Bakker, Greene hasn't had a public fall from grace. "I was on his show in the good days," Greene says, "before they started doing stupid things."

Five years ago, Greene returned to television. Up on the hill next to the ark, the church's TV studio is housed in the former church building, which was flattened in a snowstorm. Here, Greene and his wife of 52 years, Lottie, co-host a local cable program twice a week called Dreams and Visions.

The set's backdrop is a photograph of the unfinished ark - and its hopeful sign.

rob.hiaasen@baltsun.com

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