I have always associated Baltimore with its steeples. The city’s many church towers can be wonders to stumble upon when I’m walking or biking around town. More than once, they’ve pointed me in the right direction home to my Mount Vernon apartment.

I feel almost surrounded by impressive spires in my neighborhood, where I pass the greenish tower of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist almost every day. The windows of my new apartment open to Mount Vernon Place’s rival, the towering brownstone of First & Franklin Presbyterian. At the window of my old, third floor spot, I could even see to the ruins of the former Roman Catholic parish spire in East Baltimore, which burned in March of 2020 (and which was expertly captured mid-collapse by a Sun photographer).

The sky turns purple at dusk behind buildings and a tall church spire.
Completed in 1872, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church sits across from the Washington Monument in the heart of the Mount Vernon neighborhood. (Adam Willis/Adam Willis)

In other parts of town, the Old Otterbein across from Camden Yards — one of Baltimore’s oldest churches — calls back to a time when the country was not yet 10 years old. There’s even a clock-bearing steeple on the Catholic church turned yuppy brew hall in Patterson Park, a concept that sounded lame to me at first but turns out is kind of cool.

Baltimore has too many old, important and good-looking pointy spires to credit them all, but these are a few of my favorites.

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St. John AME Church and Lafayette Square

Once known to people in the neighborhood as simply “Church Square,” West Baltimore’s Lafayette Square is boxed in by four churches, with a fifth sitting just a block off. It’s a sort of tight conglomerate of churches you won’t find anyplace else in Baltimore, local historian Johns Hopkins told me, even Mount Vernon.

Each of the Lafayette Square churches is memorable in its own way, but none quite as much as St. John AME. Dating to 1879, the church is a cousin to the much larger Mount Vernon Place Methodist on Mount Vernon Square, built by the same architects and constructed from the same distinctive green serpentine stone.

An old stone church sits against a purple and orange sky.
Completed in 1879, West Baltimore’s St. John AME is a cousin to the much larger Mount Vernon Place Methodist on Mount Vernon Square, built by the same architects and constructed from the same distinctive green serpentine stone. (Adam Willis/Adam Willis)

It’s also the most bizarre-looking church you’ll find in Baltimore. With its green color, twin flying buttresses and skinny turret for a steeple, St. John looks like the designers decided to throw every architectural feature possible onto one building, Hopkins said. (That’s not to mention the cryptic depiction of four dapper men in the stained glass on the church’s facade – I haven’t been able figure out who they are). The steeple, meanwhile, looks like “a Disney princess is, like, locked up in there,” about to throw down her hair, added Hopkins.

St. John AME's architectural eccentricities might be attributed to an unusual feature of the building, the local historian Johns Hopkins points out: the church is built into the middle of the block on Lafayette Square, rather than corner real estate.

These architectural eccentricities might be attributed to another odd feature of the building, one that wouldn’t have stuck out to me had Hopkins not mentioned it. St. John was built into the middle of the block on Lafayette Square. If the church had corner real estate, its bounty of architectural features might look perfectly normal, Hopkins suggested.

But, as it is, the church looks like its architects decided to just “throw the laundry at it,” he said. I’m glad they did.

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In American Civil Rights history, West Baltimore’s St. Peter Claver Catholic Church has a long and distinguished resume. (Adam Willis/Adam Willis)

St. Peter Claver

I love the simple red brick and green trim of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Sandtown-Winchester, which I think gives it a retro vibe.

Named for the patron saint of enslaved people, St. Peter Claver is Baltimore’s second-oldest Black Catholic church. First recommended to me by Lauren Schiszik, historic preservation planner with the city, I learned from the great resource Baltimore Heritage that in American Civil Rights history, Claver has a long resume.

In the days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., in April of 1968, St. Peter Claver’s Father Henry Offer was among a group of clergy to denounce then-Governor Spiro Agnew, who had criticized local Black leaders over riots in the wake of King’s death, blaming them for the unrest. Soon after, the parish chartered buses to send members to the nation’s capital for the Poor People’s Campaign, the march on Washington organized by King and carried on after his death by other Civil Rights leaders like Ralph David Abernathy.

St. Peter Claver was also home for a time to the peace activist Philip Berrigan, who, along with his brother Daniel, was among the country’s most influential dissenters to the Vietnam War. The two Berrigans graced the cover of Time magazine in 1971 under the headline “Rebel Priests.”

At St. Peter Claver, Berrigan founded the Baltimore Interfaith Peace Mission, a coalition of mostly religious activists in the city advocating against the war. He engaged in some of the country’s most prominent acts of antiwar protest while in Baltimore. Berrigan, his brother and two others were arrested in 1967 for pouring blood onto draft cards. While on trial for that offense, the Berrigans and seven accomplices raided a Selective Service office in Catonsville and carried out hundreds of draft cards in wire bins. They rinsed their haul in napalm and set it on fire.

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The trial of the so-called “Catonsville Nine” sparked antiwar protests and other acts of civil unrest, marking a pivotal moment in the American antiwar movement.

A white stone temple with three orange domes stands against a cloudy sky.
Now a Freemason meeting house, the Eutaw Place Temple serves as a reminder of the way Baltimore’s population has shifted over the years. (Adam Willis/Adam Willis)

Eutaw Place Temple

It’s not a steeple, fine, but I’m going to count the dome on the former Eutaw Place Temple in the category of “cool shapes on top of religious buildings.”

Like some of the city’s tallest steeples, the orange-plated domes of the Eutaw Place Temple can be spotted from far-off parts of town. Now a Prince Hall Freemason meeting house, the temple is designed in homage to the Great Synagogue in Florence, according to Baltimore Heritage, and presides over the mouth of Eutaw Place and the monument there to Francis Scott Key. Its main dome is lined with Stars of David.

Today, converted synagogues like the Eutaw Place Temple serve as testaments to how Baltimore’s population has shifted. Baltimore Heritage notes that in the late 19th Century, Bolton Hill was considered a suburb of downtown Baltimore and was home to a thriving Jewish community. Over the years, many of its members migrated to the northwest part of the city and the Pikesville area in Baltimore county. The Oheb Shalom congregation sold the temple in 1960 to a Black Masonic order, linking the structure into Baltimore’s Black political history.

The order’s membership included Thurgood Marshall, and four years after the sale, Baltimore Heritage notes that King visited the converted temple to champion the presidential campaign of Lyndon Johnson.

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A tall brownstones steeple stands against a blue sky with some clouds.
When the spire at First & Franklin Presbyterian was completed in the 1870s, The Sun reported that it was the highest point in Baltimore. (Adam Willis/Adam Willis)

First & Franklin Presbyterian

In the heart of Baltimore, the two-century-old Washington Monument competes with the towers of Emmanuel Episcopal and Mount Vernon Place Methodist for preeminence on the skyline. But no appreciation of Baltimore’s steeples would be complete without the city’s tallest, a few blocks from the monument: the 273-foot brownstone spire topping First & Franklin Presbyterian.

There are plenty of office buildings and high-rises outflanking it today, but when the spire at First & Franklin was completed in the 1870s, The Sun reported that it was the highest point in Baltimore. One enterprising reporter ascended the steeple when the structure was nearly completed, documenting the view in an 1874 Sun story under the headline, “Views from a Church Spire.”

The reporter remarked on the concerning sounds of the ropes used to lift him to the top and recounted how the “wind shrieked through the apertures of the scaffolding, though down below there was scarcely any wind.”

At the top, the reporter found masons laying stone on the new spire, as well as a photographer, William H. Weaver, who had been there for several hours taking photographs of the city. It was an unnerving experience for a novice, being that high above the ground, the reporter wrote. But eventually, the reporter’s nerves settled enough to appreciate the scene.

“Taken all in all the First Presbyterian Church is a model architectural structure and a lasting ornament to Baltimore,” the reporter wrote, “and the steeple surpassingly beautiful.”

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A stone church and tall steeple stand against a cloudy sky.
Lovely Lane United Methodist on Saint Paul Street is known as the “Mother Church” of the American Methodist tradition. (Adam Willis/Adam Willis)

Lovely Lane United Methodist Church

About a mile north of the gothic churches in Mount Vernon Square, the rustic simplicity of another place of worship belies its prominent place in Protestant history. I like Lovely Lane United Methodist Church because its square bell tower and hulking nave look like a medieval fortress off North Avenue — maybe no accident, I learned from a history compiled by the United Methodist Church, since it was built in the Romanesque style popular in the Middle Ages.

Beyond its imposing look, Lovely Lane bears distinction as the “Mother Church” of the Methodist tradition in the United States. That’s because in December of 1784, a predecessor of the stone building called the Lovely Lane Chapel hosted what’s known as the Christmas Conference, in which every Methodist preacher in the country convened in Baltimore for a 10-day meeting that resulted in the formal founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church, establishing its independence from the Church of England. Although the Methodist movement originated in England, it was in Baltimore that the denomination became its own church.

The Lovely Lane congregation moved around Baltimore in the years after the Christmas Conference before landing at 22nd Street and Saint Paul around 100 years later. The ceiling inside depicts the stars in the positions they would have appeared, Baltimore Heritage notes, at 3 o’clock in the morning on the night the church was consecrated in November 1887.

All this gives Lovely Lane plenty of historical credit. I like it, too, for when I’m coming down Saint Paul after dark and the yellow light in the bell tower’s slot windows add some color to the skyline.

adam.willis@thebaltimorebanner.com

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government. 

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