Rebirth begins in Hampden

The Baltimore Sun

A dark-wood sign board still standing yesterday listed No. 354 as the congregation's final hymn at the Hampden church struck by lightning and badly damaged by fire 10 days ago. A watery hymnal lists the selection as "I Surrender All."

As workers started sifting and salvaging the church's physical remains yesterday, the music title seemed prophetic.

The historic 1879 Mount Vernon United Methodist Church gave up plenty. Several of its stained-glass windows are smashed. Its pews are warping from water saturation. The fate of the M.P. Moeller pipe organ is uncertain. Its 3,000-pound bell survived; its belfry, however, was destroyed. What survived of its slate roof will have to be torn off and replaced.

A week and a half after the Aug. 2 fire, the congregation remains resolute in its conviction to rebuild.

"I was married before that altar, and I plan to be back in a pew when we complete this job," said Frank G. Dean, president of the church's board of trustees, who stood by as construction workers began initial efforts to stabilize the building at Chestnut Avenue and West 33rd Street and ready it for additional work.

Dean said the congregation, which has about 100 members - 30 of whom are active - will go to other Hampden United Methodist churches in the interim.

Construction workers began filling a steel trash hopper with soggy debris from the building. This week, a crane will remove a 3,000-pound bronze bell from the church's steeple, which was hit by lightning and started the fire that spread within roofing trusses.

"It's a very technical and expensive job," said Louis J. Otremba Jr., president of Harford County's Servpro, a fire and water cleanup and restoration firm. "But the church was fortunate in that the fire burned from above, and not from the ground up. The building is significantly damaged and the whole superstructure of the roof will have to come off."

Otremba and his crew worked yesterday to haul away fire debris. This week workers will begin removing the church's pews, which the congregation would like to see preserved and restored. Members of the church entered the building over the weekend and placed notes on the walls for contractors to save various interior fittings.

"The disconcerting thing about this job is that people have been pulling up out front and just started crying," Otremba said. "It's such an emotional experience. This building has figured in their lives."

He said that over the next several weeks, "every finish in the interior would have to go," meaning that all the water-soaked plaster would have to be pulled off the walls. He opened a box in the church vestibule that once held hymnals and other materials. Mold and mildew were beginning to form.

Much of the heaviest damage was confined to the church's Chestnut Avenue side. Its main sanctuary had less fire damage, although its was heavily soaked by water.

"What struck me about the church was that its interior woodwork was so beautiful," said James Adajian, a furniture and wood restorer who visited the church for community meetings related to a sewer construction project. "It had such a well-maintained feel, and its interior had never been changed or jazzed up. It was really a little gem."

According to a report in The Sun, the church was dedicated Jan. 19, 1878. The article noted it as "a handsome edifice of Falls Road granite and rough marble trimmings" that would seat 650 people. The interior was finished in black walnut and chestnut.

The church's construction costs were donated by David Carroll, an owner of the Mount Vernon textile mill, the complex of 19th-century industrial buildings that also survive in the Jones Falls Valley below the church.

Carroll's mills - which produced canvas and cotton duck, as well as thread, used in ship sails - were powered by steam and water. The Mount Vernon Mills ceased making textiles more than four decades ago. His largest property was converted into studio space known as the Mill Center in the 1980s.

Carroll lived in a large stone house nearby. Today, it is the headquarters of the Florence Crittenden Services of Baltimore.

"We keep a copy of his will at the church," said Dean, the church trustee president. "When he died, he spread his money around - to Morgan State, Goucher and American University."

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