Spiraling Skyward

Downtown's Famed Clustered Spires Soar in Presence, Price

By Kate McDermott | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 12.01.16 – Feature, Frederick Scene, History

“The clustered spires of Frederick stand Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.”

— John Greenleaf Whittier, 1863

Well before the term “branding” became part of the modern marketing lexicon, the “clustered spires” that John Greenleaf Whittier wrote about in his famed poem Barbara Fritchie became Frederick’s brand. The iconic image forms the centerpiece of the City of Frederick’s official seal, is featured prominently in the Tourism Council of Frederick County’s promotional materials and has been used in the name of everything from youth lacrosse programs to the annual high-wheeled bike race.

Frederick’s spires have clearly become a point of widespread community pride and civic identity. Yet, when it comes to the upkeep of these community treasures, the burden falls squarely on the shoulders of the churches to which they belong. And as they age, the costs of maintaining these icons are presenting their congregations with serious financial challenges.

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church on East Second Street will soon begin raising $1.5 million—part of a broader $3 million capital campaign—for repairs to the church’s bell tower, according to Rev. J. Kevin Farmer. Over the years, the gold-domed structure, built in 1854, has undergone various repairs, with the last major work done nearly half a century ago. Time has taken a toll, however, and the telescoping tower is now suffering from damage to its wood, concrete and decorative dentil moulding. Its clock also needs repair.

“The plan is to fully restore it from top to bottom to carry us through the next 100 years,” Farmer says. But given the scope of the repairs and the associated price tag, the parish is exploring support from grants and other outside sources. “Clearly, this project is bigger than us,” he says.

Steep(le) Bill

The parishioners at All Saints’ Episcopal Church on West Church Street understand Farmer’s challenges. For several months last summer, Fredericktonians watched as the church’s spire was enveloped in a shroud of scaffolding and black netting.

Behind the nets, experts from the Durable Restoration Company, which specializes in restoring historic structures, were tackling much-needed maintenance on the steeple, which was experiencing “spalling”—the cracking and flaking off of the brownstone surface—as well as some wood deterioration and damaged or missing slate shingles. In addition, a century of ringing of the spire’s bell had resulted in a shifting of beams that were starting to separate from their support posts.

Parishioner Ellis Kitchen volunteered to manage the project on behalf of his church. He was able to ride to the top of the 180-foot spire before work began to get a first-hand look at the damage to the structure that was built in 1855. “This was the first time the steeple underwent repairs since suffering major damage during a storm in 1873,” Kitchen says. “Our congregation understood that the restoration needed to be completed now or we could risk its further deterioration. These repairs should last another 150 years.”

Kitchen says the $750,000 project proceeded more smoothly than anyone anticipated, but now comes the real hard part. “The project was funded through the church’s endowment,” he says. “Now, as good stewards, we need to replenish it.”

History at 150 Feet

In many ways, the spires of Downtown Frederick are more than mere architectural exclamation points in the city’s skyline. They are, in fact, historical tributes to the people and events that have shaped Frederick during its 271-year history.

All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church and Trinity Chapel (now part of Evangelical Reformed United Church of Christ) were used as makeshift hospitals during the Civil War, while St. John the Evangelist, with its windows placed high above ground level, served as a jail for Confederate soldiers. Thomas Johnson and Francis Scott Key worshipped at All Saints’, while dedicated diarist Jacob Engelbrecht was a congregant of Evangelical Lutheran and often chronicled the various construction efforts underway by churches across the city.

And there was a lot of construction to report. In 1800, Frederick County’s population was about 31,000. By 1900 it had grown to nearly 52,000. The growing number of faithful in the area was causing a church building boom.

The German congregants of Trinity Chapel added a 150-foot colonial spire to their church in 1807. It featured the four-sided “town clock” that was relocated from the church’s tower to the new steeple when it was built. The original clockworks have since been replaced, but are on display in the clock division of the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History.

Given the height of Trinity Chapel’s steeple, members of Independent Hose Fire Company would often test their water-spraying skills by attempting to shoot water over the steeple. In 1861, however, it was determined that the steeple was leaning precariously toward the south and urgent repairs were needed. Local citizen Abraham Kemp paid $742 to repair the clock and steeple.

Just a few doors down the street, the twin spires of Evangelical Lutheran Church also provide reminders of the congregation’s early German members. Erected in 1855, the steeples that stretch 150 feet into the air on East Church Street feature meticulously arranged rough-hewn wooden beams, held together with wooden pegs (no nails), that support the weight of the steeples and their enormous bells. One of the bells in the church’s west tower is the original from 1771 that was actually cast by the same foundry that made the bells for London’s famed Big Ben.

Government’s Role?

Despite their prominent place in Frederick’s history and image, the clustered spires of Frederick remain private property. The lone exception is the clock on Trinity Chapel, which was paid for by the citizens of Frederick in the 1790s and had served as the town clock for almost 200 years before it was officially turned over to the City of Frederick in 1985 for its ongoing repair and maintenance. But as the church’s facilities manager Bud Rossig points out, Evangelical Reformed United Church of Christ still pays for the electricity to power the clock.

The only other public support for the city’s famed spires comes from the City of Frederick’s commitment to covering the cost and maintenance associated with illuminating the spires. This includes a bank of four large lights situated on Frederick County’s Winchester Hall office building that is directed across the street at the twin spires of Evangelical Lutheran.

But given the high cost of maintaining these iconic symbols, some wonder if the burden falls unfairly on the nonprofit churches when so many organizations in the community use them in their own branding efforts.

“It is, and should be, a great source of pride that the institutions that own the spires have been fantastic stewards of these resources on behalf of all of our citizens,” says City of Frederick Alderman Michael O’Connor. But even despite the prominence the spires hold in the city’s public image, he is not convinced the public should be expected to do more for their upkeep.

“My hope is that if it came to something endangering the spires, the city would engage the community in ways to help preserve them,” O’Connor says, noting that there are other Frederick landmarks that might fall into that category as well.

In the absence of dedicated funding to support the preservation of the spires, Joe Adkins, deputy director for planning for the City of Frederick, says his historic preservation planners try to answer specific questions the churches may have about their aging treasures and will review plans for any planned exterior changes. His staff may also suggest resources for potential grants or other sources of funding. “Although grants are getting harder to find and obtain,” he points out, adding that government tax credits don’t apply since churches do not pay taxes.

The city also does what it can to assist the churches with questions regarding permitting and, as was the case in the All Saints’ steeple restoration earlier this year, street closures to accommodate construction equipment.

Social Media Rings

On Sunday mornings, Downtown Frederick can sound like an urban carillon, with bells pealing from the spires of All Saints’, Evangelical Lutheran, St. John’s and Trinity Chapel. But Marcia Hahn, Evangelical Lutheran’s historic preservationist, points out that in earlier times the bells were often used for more than simply calling the faithful to worship. They alerted the community to weddings or funerals, or other major events in the city. “I guess you could say they were the social media of the day,” she jokes.

Hahn accepts the role she and her fellow congregants have in preserving the history left to them—and to the community. “We recognize that our church’s ancestors had the foresight to build this structure,” she says. “So it’s our responsibility to maintain it.”

The Rev. Dr. Barbara Kershner Daniel, senior pastor at Evangelical Reformed, admits that in a perfect world it would be nice to have outside financial support for the upkeep of Trinity Chapel’s spire so that her congregation could focus more resources on furthering its mission of helping the most vulnerable members of the community by supporting local food banks, transitional shelters and the like.

“We struggle with maintaining our historic structures, but it’s a reminder to us that we are grounded in the historic structure of the city and that churches have been a part of the city since its founding,” she says. “Our congregation sees their buildings as part of our mission, about caring about people inside and outside of our walls.”

For All Saints’ Ellis Kitchen, volunteering to help preserve his church’s steeple was an opportunity to continue the legacy left to him by his church’s ancestors. “I first approached the steeple restoration as just a job that needed to be done,” he recalls. “But once it was completed, I changed my perspective. I saw it as a really wonderful opportunity to be on the team of people that restored this so that four or five future generations will be able to use it.”