Strawbridge Methodist Episcopal Church. Credit: Maryland Historical Trust.

The historic sanctuary of Bolton Hill’s Strawbridge Methodist Episcopal Church will become an art gallery run by the Maryland Institute College of Art as part of a $1.4 million renovation plan approved by the State of Maryland.

Gov. Larry Hogan announced this week that the Maryland Historical Trust has awarded $294,250 in Historic Revitalization tax credits to help fund renovation of the English Gothic Revival-style church at Park Avenue and Wilson Street, an 1885 structure that has been dormant for more than a decade.

A group called Bolton Hill Belfry LLC had received approval from Baltimore’s zoning board to convert the property to 11 market-rate apartments and has already stabilized the building in preparation for the conversion.

According to Hogan’s announcement, “the main sanctuary will be used in partnership with the Maryland Institute College of Art for exhibition space,” and the apartments will be constructed elsewhere on the property.

The tax credits for historic preservation are a key to funding the project, and the art gallery component was a key to securing the tax credits, according to Dan Kamenetz, head of the development team.

Kamenetz said his group is awaiting word on whether it will also get federal tax credits for historic preservation, a decision that likely will come early next year. Because federal tax credits typically are awarded to projects that get state preservation tax credits, he said, the Hogan administration’s endorsement was critical.

“This was the big one,” he said of the state’s approval. “This is a very historic building in Bolton Hill. It was designed by a famous architect. We’re very proud to be restoring it and putting it to use that the community can support.”

Creating exhibition space as well as apartments represents a significant change from previous plans developed for recycling the church, which was designed by the noted Baltimore architect Charles Carson.

In the earlier plans, apartments were going to be built inside the high-ceilinged sanctuary, requiring the space to be subdivided and for its large stained-glass windows and other original features potentially to be removed.

But when the developers considered seeking preservation tax credits as part of their funding plan, Kamenetz said, they knew they likely wouldn’t get approved if they altered the sanctuary, one of the church’s most significant spaces.

“We took a lesson from other developers that worked on other churches,” he said. “If you put a wall in a sanctuary, it’s a deal breaker” in terms of getting preservation tax credits. “We never would have applied.”

The team’s architect, Adam Carballo of Carballo Architecture, came up with a way to create 11 apartments elsewhere on the property and leave the main worship space undivided, allowing the renovation to qualify for historic preservation tax credits.

Carballo’s plan calls for apartments to be created on a lower level beneath the sanctuary, in a meeting hall and under a balcony adjacent to the sanctuary, and in a former rectory on Wilson Street.

The developers then considered alternative uses that would leave the main sanctuary open and preserve its original features.

Kamenetz said at a community meeting in August that the sanctuary has about 2,500 to 3,000 square feet of space and his group considered three possible tenants, MICA, the Peabody Institute and Constantine Grimaldis, the owner of C. Grimaldis Gallery on Charles Street. He said the development team would lease the space for free to a tenant that would leave it undivided and operate it as a “community space” that Bolton Hill residents and others could enjoy.

Kamenetz said his team got a letter of interest from MICA, which was presented to the state, and now must work out the specifics of a lease. MICA won’t be allowed to build walls that would chop up the space, he said, but it is looking at ways to level the sloping wooden floor.

In terms of whose work might be shown at the gallery, he said MICA has expressed an interest in featuring not only work by MICA students but also people who live in the surrounding neighborhoods, including Bolton Hill, Reservoir Hill and Madison Park.

“They want it to be an inclusive space,” he said.

Kamenetz, a nephew of the late Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, said the team is aiming to start construction on the apartments and exhibition space in the spring of 2020 and complete the project in the spring of 2021.

Besides Dan Kamenetz and his father and mother, Greg and Darma, the Strawbridge development team includes real estate broker Ben Frederick III. A contractor has not been named.

Bolton Hill residents at the August meeting said they liked the idea of not building apartments in the sanctuary.

“This plan is a lot better than the last plan,” said Bolton Street resident Paul Daniel, an artist. “The idea of changing the sanctuary to a community space is a much more appealing solution that trying to chop it up into apartments.”

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.