High on the west wall of Old Saint Paul’s Church, a crack curves across the plaster like the faint trace of a healed scar. “An architectural ghost,” Rick Tomlinson, the longtime parish verger, calls it. “It’s amazing. Even with painting and sealing, it [the crack] still comes through.”
The “ghost” is a remnant of a Saint Paul’s even older than this current church building, which was built in 1856 and is the fifth house of worship for the parish. Before the 1856 building, there was another Saint Paul’s on the corner of Charles and Saratoga, one built by the architect Robert Carey Long Sr. in 1817. Neoclassical in style with a 126-foot-tall tower and an interior marked by Corinthian columns and gilded plaster, much of the fourth Saint Paul’s perished in a fire in 1854. But portions of the 1817 building, like the ghost— the outline of the arched doors that originally welcomed parishioners into the church— give shape and spirit to the current building.
Though Saint Paul’s feels very much of the city, the parish actually began in Baltimore County. In 1675, landowner Jeremiah Eaton willed 500 acres of his estate near the Patapsco and Back rivers to attract a Protestant minister to set up church. By 1682, the Rev. John Yeo had begun conducting services there, and by 1692, after the flush of the 1689 Protestant Revolution, Patapsco Parish, also known as Saint Paul’s, was established. The parish moved into Baltimore Town proper in 1739, building a small brick church on Lot 19, bounded today by Charles, Lexington, Saratoga and St. Paul streets. This church, with a belfry perched on the roof “like a sparrow,” according to some descriptions, sat within a churchyard filled with both graves and horse’s tethering blocks. It was home to its parishioners until 1784, when a new church and, soon after, a parsonage, were built.
As Baltimore grew and prospered, so did its churches, and following the turn of the 19th century, the demand for singular church architecture grew. Motivated, perhaps, by the construction of the grand Baltimore Basilica designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the congregation of Saint Paul’s decided it was time for a grander church, this time designed by Long, who had just completed the Holliday Street Theatre circa 1812-1814 and the Peale Museum in 1813.
Long’s Saint Paul’s, which he situated at the corner of Charles and Saratoga, was an extravagant, arresting building and a far cry from the humbler, country-style buildings that preceded it. Columns proliferated— from the four pairs that preceded the arched doors into the church to the three sets that supported the tower, which rose to the equivalent of 10 stories before culminating in a dome topped with a cross. The interior was just as lavish, with an altar of Siena marble, deep red drapery and room for 1,600 worshippers, including prominent Baltimoreans such as U.S. Sen. Reverdy Johnson, Lt. Col. George Armistead and John Eager Howard.
According to the story Tomlinson has heard, the fire that destroyed the church began when the church sexton assumed there would be choir rehearsal on the evening of April 28, 1854, and accordingly, lit a fire in the choir loft fireplace. But there was no rehearsal, and the fire spread, despite it being a rainy evening. When the flames were finally quenched, only the dome, the outer walls and the foundation of Saint Paul’s remained.
The subsequent rebuilding of Saint Paul’s by architect Richard Upjohn incorporated the still standing walls and foundation into a new building (Saint Paul’s dome and its cross were given to Church Home and Hospital on Broadway), and today a keen eye can see variation in the brick façade where old and not-as-old meld.
Inside, too, Old Saint Paul’s still holds traces of Older Saint Paul’s. Maximilian Godefroy’s creamy marble baptismal font, an artifact of the earlier church, still stands to the right of the altar, and the Bishop’s Chair, with its incorporated gilded mitre and crozier, sits on the altar as it did in the 1817 church. Perhaps the most striking artifact of the old church is the stained-glass medallion depicting the head of the suffering Christ ringed with a crown of thorns. Now enclosed within a larger Tiffany glass, the window shines radiant, “almost electric [with] a complete cast of gold” during certain times of day and certain seasons, reports Tomlinson.
The stories in this column usually end with a revelation of the fate of a historic building no longer with us (usually, it’s become a parking lot). But the ghost of the 1817 Saint Paul’s Church lives on as the current building celebrates its 155th anniversary this year. So this time we’ll end with both a celebratory toast and an architectural wish that the glorious Saint Paul’s Church continues to be a long and lasting repository of the past and spiritual home for the future.