The ordinary or quotidian in architecture often masks the unique, especially if time serves to dull the patina of something’s newness. St. Philip’s Lutheran Church is case-in-point: a faded Modernist gem, the church nevertheless embodies the remarkable story of its congregation’s persistence.
Now in its sixth decade, the St. Philip’s edifice still serves the vibrant community that built it, despite the exigencies of Baltimore’s history over the years since the building’s dedication in 1958.
Home to the nation’s second-oldest African American Lutheran congregation, St. Philip’s is also the first church in America to be built under the auspices of urban renewal. Accordingly, its design reflects both church-goers’ rapidly-changing expectations in the years after World War II and city planners’ embrace of modernist planning solutions. Set back from the street and moderately scaled—like a suburban house—St. Philip’s Lutheran Church reflects mostly the ideas of its pastor at the time, the Rev. Francis B. Smith. Congregational lore and extant sketches by Rev. Smith attest to his direct involvement in the building’s design; the architect, Frederic Moehle, seems mostly to have translated Rev. Smith’s directions into the final, three-dimensional form.
Despite its modest exterior, St. Philip’s created considerable architectural drama within. Alone among Baltimore’s contemporary religious buildings, St. Philip’s low ceiling is illuminated extensively by continuous, floor-to-ceiling windows along both sides. An extensive clerestory window (now, unfortunately, covered over) washed the altar and its podium with “ineffable light.” Otherwise, the original finishes of the church interior were entirely consistent with the Modernist’s creed: unfinished block and brick masonry (stacked bond), naturally-finished wood, linoleum tile floor, and serene abstraction throughout the space.
Rev. Smith and the St. Philip’s congregation fought hard to wrest those qualities from the City’s “Urban Renewal Plan 3-A” – a.k.a. the “Broadway Redevelopment Plan” – laid out by architect Alex Cochran and first announced publicly in 1950. St. Philip’s had occupied a historic structure on Eden Street, designated by Plan 3-A to be demolished and appropriated for Dunbar High School’s expanded athletic fields. No provision was made in Cochran’s original plan to relocate St. Philip’s, but a decade of persistent negotiation between Rev. Smith and Baltimore’s Redevelopment Commission resulted in the congregation’s purchase of the present site on Caroline Street. Construction proceeded apace, a year before Cochran’s own celebrated design for the nearby Church of Our Savior (now demolished) could begin.
Recent changes have tarnished St. Philip’s architectural shine: roof-top AC units, faux-wood paneling, “traditional” chandeliers, and much-needed heat-resistant glazing. An addition at the south-east corner provided accessibility for the disabled. But the building is still substantially the building it was in 1958. Especially on the exterior, the church’s bulk and orientation still express an ease belied only by Johns Hopkins Hospital’s looming physical presence immediately to the east. What appears “quotidian” is, therefore, merely that superficial change wrought by time; what is of interest at St. Philip’s remains entirely present, if just below the surface.