Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church

Old St. Paul’s is the only surviving Richard Upjohn-designed building in Baltimore. Within the architect’s œuvre, the use of the Early ChristianRomanesque basilica style is unique. The present interior, dating largely from a 1904 redecoration program, contains stained glass, mosaic and decorative painting by Tiffany Studios, D. Maitland Armstrong, and Chase and Ames of Boston. The present building is the third church on this site, the first dating back to 1732, the second built in 1814 to designs by Robert Cary Long, Jr.

The congregation of St. Paul’s was founded at Patapsco Neck, the first of three Episcopal parishes in Baltimore County authorized by an Act of the Maryland Assembly in 1692. In 1731, the congregation relocated to Baltimore Town, purchasing the land upon which the present structure stands. This lot, the highest point of land within the boundaries of the town at that time, is the oldest continuously owned property in the city.

By the time the parish had contacted architect Richard Upjohn about designing a new building, the architect was already well known as the foremost American practitioner of Ecclesiological architecture. The Ecclesiological Movement, begun in Oxford in the 1833, advocated reform within the Anglican liturgy by returning to certain Roman Catholic practices that pre-dated the Anglican Church itself (that is to say, prior to the Act of Supremacy under Henry VIII in 1534). In order to achieve this, Ecclesiologists studied and reproduced “archaeologically correct” examples of medieval parish churches that would have accommodated the liturgical services that the movement hoped to revive.

The Ecclesiological demand for liturgical reform was inextricably tied with their advocacy of architectural reform. The premise was that pre-Reformation church design— specifically the Gothic parish church—had evolved in perfect expression of the true liturgy. The rigidly controlled massing of many 17th and 18th-century churches was eschewed in favor of a more agglomerative massing, suggestive of a building’s growth over time. In addition, the architectural component of the movement surely contained a dose of Romantic nationalism, proposing a return to an earlier, rural style of building in the face of unparalleled industrialization and urbanization from the 1830s onward.

The Baltimore parish of Old St. Paul’s, traditionally more “high church” than evangelical, was moving toward Anglo-Catholicism in the 1840s. Bishop Whittingham was a reform advocate, and the dozen or so churches erected under his diocesan leadership are generally textbook Ecclesiological Gothic, resembling English parish churches transplanted to Baltimore neighborhoods. It is thus surprising that Upjohn, who is best known as the architect of Gothic Revival Trinity Church in New York, and Old St. Paul’s—the “mother church” of an Anglo-Catholic diocese on the verge of a Ecclesiological building program— should end up with a very non-Gothic looking church.

One reason for the choice of the boxy basilica form is surely practical. The parish’s wish to retain as much surviving fabric as possible from the Robert Cary Long church on this site (which burned in 1854) dictated a rectangular footprint and thick brick walls that were incompatible with the Gothic Revival style. The Ecclesiological aversion to the Classical tradition in architecture eliminated a vast array of stylistic possibilities. Even so, the unusual choice of a basilica form did not automatically dictate an Early Christian basilica style. The decision to express the basilica plan in a basilica style so closely resembling Early Christian models (by way of their Medieval emulators) seems logical, but was unprecedented in Ecclesiological practice.

The Baltimore church’s Roman namesake, the Early Christian basilica of San Paolo fuori la mura (St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, built 384 C.E.) may have provided the inspiration for Upjohn’s design. Believed to have been one of the most perfectly preserved examples of an Early Christian basilica, the church suffered a catastrophic fire in 1823.

The reconstruction of the basilica was renowned not only for its authenticity, but for the scholarly opportunity the work provided for the study of construction and design of the Early Christian church. Further research into Upjohn’s travels in Italy may confirm—or disprove—that the Early Christian St. Paolo in Rome provided inspiration for the design of its namesake in Baltimore. The fact that the Baltimore church burned in 1854 (as the Roman one had in 1823) and would be similarly “rebuilt” within surviving walls might have confirmed the aptitude conceptually of Upjohn’s design for Old St. Paul’s that had been in development since 1852.

In fact, the reformist impulse of the Ecclesiological movement logically might have led—Romantic nationalism in England aside—to early Christianity as the “purest” form of liturgy and supporting architecture, but it rarely (if ever) did, except at Old. St. Paul’s. Given the parish’s status as the earliest in Baltimore, the idea of fashioning “The Mother Church” of Baltimore in the image of the earliest surviving Christian basilica—the very first basilica anywhere dedicated to St. Paul (as the Roman church is built on the site of his burial)—makes for a powerful rhetorical statement. In conjunction with the more conventional use of English Gothic models in the other diocesan projects of the period, the design of Old St. Paul’s may be seen as an expression of an analogy: Old St. Paul’s is to the other parishes of the Episcopal Church in Baltimore what St. Paolo fuori la mura in Rome is to the Church in Western Europe. Taken a step further, the reference may indicate that the diocese as a whole ultimately “looked to Rome” (rather than to  Canterbury or London) for its starting point.

The facility with which Upjohn fulfilled all the Ecclesiological prerequisites—as noted above—into an atypically Ecclesiological building is not only a remarkable testament to the architect’s skill. The resulting building is unique in the architecture of both the Ecclesiological movement and the œuvre of the architect.

Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church