Congregation funds $5 million renovation in effort to lift voices higher

Members of a North Baltimore church congregation felt they could not hear their own voices while singing a hymn. Others complained they could not hear the choir.

Aware of acoustical dead spots in the sanctuary of Second Presbyterian Church, the congregation resolved to spend nearly $5 million on a dramatic refurbishment of the 1929 structure. They closed the main sanctuary for more than a year and held services in an adjoining hall while the church was filled with scaffolding.

"It was time to make a bold move," said the Rev. Dr. Thomas Blair, pastor of the church. "The time had come to make some concrete improvements."

Blair said the church also wanted to give something back as it raised funds for its home renovation.

He said the congregation decided to donate another $525,000 to help several charities, including Baltimore's Educational Opportunity Fund, where its funds will assist 50 public school students to graduate from high school.

The church is also aiding the Govans Ecumenical Development Corporation's CARES program, which provides emergency assistance to families and individuals and to the East Baltimore's Caroline Center Program for women's jobs training. The church also donated $100,000 to build a school in Afghanistan.

The campaign to refurbish Second Presbyterian began last year when the main sanctuary closed.

A battery of architects, consultants and sound engineers examined the problem. They identified its source as a barrel vault ceiling that stretched over the pews, made of an acoustical plaster that soaked up and deadened music. The surface of curved ceiling also looked, as architect Steve Ziger said, "like cottage cheese."

The congregation hosts a program of well-attended public musical performances each year, in addition to its weekly services. The members wanted to make the most of its Georgian Revival interior, the work of architects Edward L. Palmer and William D. Lamdin. The designers, revered for their sense of proportion and the refinement of detailing, were also prolific. They gave Baltimore landmarks such as the town center of old Dundalk, as well as the Cambridge Arms apartments, where novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald once lived, and St. Casimir's Roman Catholic Church in Canton.

For Second Presbyterian, Palmer and Lamdin created a grouping of church, manse, clock tower and congregational hall in a warm brick topped by a slate roof. The church membership agreed that none of the architects' beloved original detailing would be sacrificed. The sound was another issue.

"The entire ceiling was cut up and hauled off to the dump," said Thomas McCracken, a consultant hired by the congregation. "Its replacement looks as if its always been there."

The church will formally reopen its resplendent sanctuary today. As part of the renovation campaign, the church was thoroughly painted. One of the dominant colors is a tone called "gentle cream," one of several off-white hues used in the restoration. The aisles were re-carpeted. Its chancel area was enlarged to accommodate roomier quarters for the choir and organist. A chapel was also updated and renovated and a new boiler installed, among other improvements.

But the star of the day is its new ceiling, a coffered arrangement of plaster components that have been tweaked and fine-tuned acoustically. Visitors say the ceiling, with its series of repeated rectangular cavities, creates the impression of height, formality and airiness.

"The church was good for speech but abysmal for music," said Neil Shade, a sound technician who has worked on numerous Baltimore spaces troubled by poor acoustics. "We increased the sound reverberation by 50 percent."

Blair said he is grateful for the "inspired leadership" of architects Steve Ziger, Hugh McCormick and Joe Cellucci of Ziger/Snead and to Lewis Contractors of Owings Mills for the work done.

Elaine Logan, a member of the Second Presbyterian congregation who chaired its facilities planning committee, said she followed the progress monthly.

"It was a very good space to begin with," she said. "But when it was finished, it was just breathtaking."

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