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Maryland's National Register Properties

Photo credit: SAB and RBG, 07/1978
First Unitarian Church
Inventory No.: B-5
Date Listed: 2/11/1972
Location: 2-12 W. Franklin Street, Baltimore, Baltimore City
Category: Building
Period/Date of Construction: 1817-1818
Architect/Builder: Architect: Maximilian Godefroy
NHL Date: 2/20/1972
Description: The First Unitarian Church is essentially a domed cube, with walls of brick and stone masonry covered with stucco. The main entrance, on the south side, is covered by a shallow, pedimented portico formed by three arches on Tuscan columns. The porch roof is vaulted, and the five entrance doors are separated by Tuscan pilasters. Within the portico pediment is the only exterior non-architectural decoration--a reproduction of a terra cotta sculpture of the "Angel of Truth" appearing from a sunburst. The angel holds a scroll inscribed in Greek letters: "To the Only God." Originally executed by Antonio Capellano, the sculpture was broken in the 20th century and restored by Baltimore sculptor Henry Berge. Within the porch is the entrance, with three doorways flanked by plain pilasters which repeat the rhythm of the porch columns. The porch is raised on a sandstone base with five marble steps. The ceiling of the porch is groin vaulted. The entablature of the pediment continues around the entire building. The three-arch motif of the front facade is also employed on the sides of the building, with three windows in arched niches forming the primary decoration. The nearly square interior is crowned by a large dome, 55' in diameter. Once the distinguishing feature of both the interior and exterior, the dome was obscured in 1893 by a plaster level-vault installed to improve the acoustics on the interior. The ceiling, apart from this dome, is a giant barrel vault running from the entrance in the south to the altar in the north, coffered and decorated with large elaborate rosettes. The triple arch motif is repeated on the interior at the side, forming a nave arcade between the side aisles (at the wall) and the main body of the church. There is one main, central aisle leading to a raised chancel, also with coffered ceiling, and having a mosaic of the Last Super over the altar. There re three blind windows filled with stained glass behind the altar; the glass in the side windows is non-iconographic, being simple geometric designs. There is an organ loft at the rear supported by four columns similar to those on the exterior. The decoration is fairly rich and includes pilasters with Corinthian capitals between the arches. There are few monuments on the walls. Slip pews are at least 19th century, if not original. The mosaic of the Last Supper and the stained glass windows are late-19th century additions, products of the Tiffany studios. Significance: The First Unitarian Church represents a departure from late Georgian and early neo-classical styles popular in the first decades of the 19th century. Instead of dealing with surfaces and applied ornament, the architect, Maximilian Godefroy, concerned himself with mass and interplay of geometric forms. Originally the interior of the First Unitarian Church was spherical, like the Pantheon in Rome. However, the acoustics were poor, so the barrel vault renovation was instituted in 1880. The church was restored in 1954. The First Unitarian Church is both important in the history of American architecture and in the history of Unitarianism. It was the first building erected for a Unitarian group in America. The cornerstone was laid June 5, 1817, and, although still incomplete, the church was dedicated October 29, 1818. At the dedication Dr. William Ellery Channing of Boston delivered a sermon which is still considered the keystone of Unitarian principles. Reverend Jared Sparks, who was the minister until 1823, later became President of Harvard University. One of the early members was Rembrandt Peale, one of the sons of the famous artist, Charles Willson Peale.


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