Restorer of churches honored for his work

The Baltimore Sun

Architect Michael Murphy has restored some of Baltimore's most significant churches, including St. Vincent de Paul, St. Ignatius and Corpus Christi.

He was part of the design team that showed how the historic Hippodrome Theatre could be brought back to life as the centerpiece of downtown's France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.

He oversaw the transformation of the Maryland Masonic Temple to a conference and banquet facility known as the Tremont Grand.

For those and other achievements, Murphy this month will receive one of the highest tributes his profession offers: induction into the prestigious College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects.

Murphy, a Maryland native and founding principal of Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects in Baltimore and York, Pa., is one of 116 architects nationwide who will be invested as a fellow during the AIA convention in Boston.

He is the second architect in his family to be named to the college. His father, Frederick Vernon Murphy, was similarly recognized in 1931. His business partner, Frank Dittenhafer, was added last year.

"It's a great honor," Murphy said during a recent meeting of Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, of which he is a member. "I feel there ought to be a lot more recognition of work by Baltimore architects."

Fellows are nominated in one of five categories, ranging from design expertise to service to the profession. Murphy, 61, was selected in the historic preservation design category, based on his design work, his writing and his community service. As a member of Baltimore's preservation commission, he has been an advocate for landmark designation of noteworthy 20th-century buildings such as the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Charles Center.

Since it was founded in 1985, Murphy & Dittenhafer has come to specialize in the restoration of historic churches in the region. Its other past projects include the Marikle Chapel at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland and St. David's Church on Roland Avenue.

Current church-related work includes renovation or expansion projects for Memorial Episcopal Church, First and Franklin Street Presbyterian Church and Zion Lutheran Church in Baltimore; St. Pius X Church in Baltimore County; and Annapolis Unitarian/Universalist Church. Current college work includes a hotel and apartment project for the University of Maryland on Baltimore's west side and a "multicultural center" for the Johns Hopkins University.

Frederick Murphy also specialized in church design, including the St. Charles Seminary Chapel, now part of the Charlestown retirement community, and renovations to the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore. He also founded the architecture department at Catholic University of America in 1911.

Michael Murphy said he didn't set out to follow in his father's footsteps when he was growing up in Chevy Chase. "I kind of resisted that idea," he said. "I thought I would major in history and either be a teacher or a writer."

He majored in history at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. But toward the end of his undergraduate years, he became more interested in architecture and enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania for a master's degree in architecture. There, he studied with luminaries such as city planner Edmund Bacon and landscape architect Ian McHarg.

After graduating in 1974, Murphy initially looked for jobs in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington, but the economy was in a recession and he couldn't find one. One of his brothers, John, had moved to Baltimore to work as an attorney and suggested he seek a job here. That's where he settled, working first for other firms before opening his own office.

Murphy said he became involved in church design after complaining to a priest at the Archdiocese of Baltimore about the quality of church design in Baltimore. The priest invited him to become part of a design advisory panel that the archdiocese had formed, and that led to work for the church. His first religious project was a chapel for Towson University's Newman Center.

Murphy said he doesn't regret his years studying history. "It turned out to be very valuable to my work as an architect."

In many ways, he said, restoring old buildings "gives you a feeling that you're participating in history."

He said Baltimore is fortunate to have a rich stock of buildings worth restoring, and that's why he is pleased to serve on the city's preservation commission. He'd like the panel to be even more aggressive about recommending buildings to add to the landmark list - possibly by asking city residents what they want to see protected.

"Every part of the city has a neighborhood association," he said. "We should contact them and say, 'We are open to your nominations. What do you think are the most important buildings in your community?' ... It's critical that we find more and better ways of protecting the unique physical fabric of Baltimore, because that's the key to its future."



Washington, D. C.


Chevy Chase

Current residence:

North Baltimore.


Founding principal, Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects of Baltimore and York, Pa., and member of Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.

Current projects:

Drover's Bank conversion on Baltimore's west side; First and Franklin Street Presbyterian Church historic renovation and addition; Annapolis Unitarian/Universalist Church master plan; St. Pius X renovation; master plan for the renovation of the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C.

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