Strawbridge church: the saga continues

When did this story begin?

It could stretch back to 1889, when the classy English Gothic building that housed Strawbridge Methodist Church at 201 Wilson Street opened for worship, in what was then the new and trendy Baltimore neighborhood of Bolton Hill.

Or even earlier. It was named for Robert Strawbridge, a preacher and carpenter recruited by John Wesley who emigrated to Maryland from Drummersnave, Ireland, in the 1760s. He settled in what is now Carroll County, where there still is an operating Strawbridge UMC church in New Windsor.

Strawbridge is credited with establishing the Methodist church in America as he preached through Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. At the first Methodist conference held in America in 1773, Francis Asbury, Strawbridge, and two others were appointed to Baltimore, the oldest and largest circuit of the fledgling church. From 1776-1781, he pastored near Aberdeen. He also fathered six children.

In 1781 he succumbed to an unspecified illness and died at about age 49. His body and that of his wife, Elizabeth, are at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in west Baltimore.

Bolton Hill’s Strawbridge church shut down in 2009 and remained unused and unloved until 2014. It was for sale, priced at $600,000 by the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. It eventually was purchased at auction, along with an adjacent residence. A development group called Bolton Hill Belfry LLC received approval from Baltimore’s zoning board to recast the property as 11 market-rate apartments and began to stabilize the crumbling building in preparation for the conversion.

In 2019 the Maryland Historical Trust awarded $294,250 in historic revitalization tax credits to help renovate the church’s sanctuary to become an art gallery run by MICA. A $1.4 million state tax credit came next. The art gallery component was critical to securing the tax credits, according to Dan Kamenetz, head of the development team.

At neighborhood meetings led by BHCA on the redevelopment, close-by neighbors worried about the loss of limited street parking because as an historic renovation it was not subject to zoning board parking requirements.

And then came the pandemic.

So, what’s going on these days? We connected with Kamenetz in early March.

“We are in the middle of a sprinkler rough-in. This is the trickiest part of the project to date. We had some issues to resolve with both historic review and the fire marshal. In the end we had to get a permit for a completely commercial sprinkler (instead of a residential multifamily sprinkler). With that permit now in hand, we are back to work on steel pipe installation.

“There are challenges with sprinklering every area of a building that was never designed for it: lots of core drilling through thick stone walls, and some work had to be redone to meet the fire marshal’s requirements as well as to pass historic review.

“Once that’s completed, we are ready for insulation and drywall. Doors, windows, and cabinets are all standing by. The stained glass is being removed off site for restoration by the best stained-glass artisan in Baltimore.”

When does the story end?

“Before this recent delay we were aiming for lease-up by October or November. Now it’s looking like early 2024,” said Kamenetz. “Once we’re past drywall it will be like any other project. Other than the sprinklers, everything has been by the original plans.“

–Bill Hamilton