St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (known locally as Old St. Paul’s), a historic landmark on the 200 block of North Charles Street in Baltimore, is the city’s oldest church structure. It was designed by renowned architect Richard Upjohn and constructed in 1856. Its historical significance is underscored by the prominent people who were members of the parish, including Samuel Chase, John Eager Howard, Thomas Johnson, and Baltimore Mayor and Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer.
Renovations in 1902 included painting the sanctuary in three shades of gray. Later updates had all wall, column, and ceiling surfaces covered in beige, completely obscuring the original architectural intentions and color scheme. Over the years, the plaster ornamentation deteriorated from neglect and moisture.
For over a decade, the congregation at Old St. Paul’s sat, uninspired, in the dimly-lit sanctuary, wanting to restore the church so it could more appropriately accommodate their worship and inspire attendees. The effort was derailed by indecision, false starts, and disagreements among the congregation on how best to proceed.
Eventually, Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects got involved and provided the leadership and design expertise to guide the project. They provided oversight for the repair and restoration to the historic sanctuary, entry, and auxiliary spaces originally constructed in 1856.
Murphy & Dittenhafer conducted forums with the church’s stakeholders, with their starting point incorporating a thorough analysis and understanding of the building’s history.
In order to gain access to the sixty-foot high sanctuary ceilings, walls, and nave components for repair and restoration, Murphy & Dittenhafer planned and facilitated the installation of a complex scaffolding system five stories high with three platforms at different heights.
They comprehensively repaired and restored deteriorated plaster, developed a cohesive paint palette that was historically accurate, and relit the sanctuary with new lighting integrated into the historic timber structure and interior plaster cornices and coves. The overall effect was warm and bright, and the project completely transformed the feeling of the sanctuary.
One of the key features of the restored Old St. Paul’s is the “sky blue” wood sanctuary ceiling painted with gold stars. Upjohn’s original 1856 design referenced gold stars painted onto the pitched, gabled roof nave ceiling. Forensic evidence of the stars in Old St. John’s was inconclusive, but the congregation’s response to incorporating the stars was overwhelmingly positive and generated additional funding for the project. Murphy & Dittenhafer researched Upjohn’s use of ceiling star designs in other churches and developed a pattern of stylized, six-sided, gold painted stars.
The restoration has re-energized and united an urban congregation charged with the living stewardship of a landmark structure. The space has been updated in a way that seamlessly merges history and modern congregational needs. It was done with Murphy & Dittenhafer’s trademark sensitivty, and was completed on time and within a very modest budget of only $265,000.
The project was recognized in fall 2014 with design awards from The American Institute of Architects in both the Central Pennsylvania and Baltimore chapters.