James Harp, the Cantor at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church plays the organ at a recent service. (Justus Heger)
Elegant or austere?
What sets the mood for worship? For some, it is spires, stained glass windows, vaulted ceilings and ebony doors. For others, it may be a Spartan chancel with candles and rough hewn floors.
For James Harp, the Cantor at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Baltimore, the answer to that question transcends visual aesthetics and embraces a tradition of music as old as Händel and Bach; as beloved as the Book of Psalms.
“My father and I are both spiritual people, and I once made the comment that I would always want to worship in a place that was artistically beautiful and had good music. He countered that God was present no matter the ambience and that it shouldn’t matter about the decoration or music. My response was that I certainly did not disagree, but the “beauty” of holiness was very important to me, and that God’s gift of art and music, elevated to its highest level, elevated me to my highest level as well.”
Harp’s love for church and its melodious music began when he was just a boy. Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, he would attend Sunday morning services at a Methodist church – mostly to make his mother happy. On Sunday evening, he would go to the Baptist church – this time to please his dad. And on Wednesday nights, he would attend the local Pentecostal meeting because he, “loved the hymns in 6/8 time.”
Harp fondly remembers the inspiring anthems which he cherished as a youth and recalls that it was Miss Frances Smith, a Jacksonville neighbor, who introduced him to organ music.
“I was about seven when I attended an Easter service in the big church for the very first time. By big church, I mean the main sanctuary where the adults would worship. Miss Smith brought me to the Avondale United Methodist Church, there in Jacksonville. Throughout the service, I was amazed by this beautiful music, but I didn’t know where it was coming from, so I asked Miss Smith and she took me to look behind the screen where the organist was. From that moment, I knew I wanted to make music and play the organ in a church someday.”
At seven, Harp’s legs were still too short to reach an organ’s pedals, so he started with lessons on the piano. By twelve, he’d grown enough to segue to the organ. His church family supported the budding musician, allowing him access to practice on the sacred instruments. Eventually, Harp’s musical journey brought him to Baltimore.
“I was first in St. Mark’s in the summer of 1982 to play for a Deacon’s ordination service. I remember literally gasping when I walked through the sanctuary doors and saw the full vista of the room. I’ve always had a propensity for Art Nouveau decoration and was stunned particularly by the apse, with its heavily stenciled decoration; the Tiffany blue mosaic with the opalines, and especially the huge vine amidst the gilt semi-dome.”
As Harp would happily affirm, St. Mark’s is an artistic and historic treasure. Recently, an open house was hosted by the congregation and the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) in recognition of the church receiving a Public Interior Landmark Designation. The Rev. Dale Dusman, the church’s pastor, freely acknowledges that St. Mark’s is, “Not what you’d normally expect in a Lutheran church.”
The building, which was completed in 1898, was designed by leading Baltimore architect Joseph Evans Sperry. Those unfamiliar with Sperry’s name may be edified to learn that his most famous building is probably the Bromo Seltzer Tower. The exterior of St. Mark’s is an excellent example of the Romanesque revival style which was quite popular in the late 19th century.
Dusman said that the church building (like others along St. Paul Street) was evidently financed by a fairly affluent congregation. Henry Smith & Sons, which was one of Baltimore’s premier building contractors, faultlessly executed Sperry’s design. Smith & Sons were also the builders of such local landmarks as the Lyric Theater, the Customs House and the original Maryland Institute, College of Arts.
The chiseled stone structure of the church is certainly magnificent, but it is the interior which overwhelms the senses.
According to church history, “As the building was being planned, Tiffany Glass Decorating Company of New York City was chosen to carry out the interior design. Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of the founder of the Tiffany Jewelry Company, had studied art in Paris and had spent time in Spain and North Africa as well, studying examples of interior decoration.
Other interiors executed by the Tiffany studios show Louis’ interest in Byzantine art. The interior design of St. Mark’s was under the direction of artist Rene de Quelen. De Quelen, who also studied in Paris, designed stained glass and was the head artist for the Tiffany studios for ten years.”
The history concludes, “We are indebted to this creative man for this magnificent example of church ornamentation influenced by the Byzantine period.”
The deep hues of the Byzantine interior are contrasted by an altar of Rubio marble, inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The altar, along with the pulpit, lectern and baptismal font, are the work of the J. and R. Lamb Co. of New York City.
Few changes have been made to the sanctuary since 1898. Even the carpet is a replica of the original design. Three large stained glass windows on the north side of the church date respectively from 1917, 1918 and 1932. The later two were designed by the Tiffany studios. One even bears the signature of Louis Tiffany himself. The oldest panel, however, was designed by Joseph Lauber, who was then teaching at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. Lauber also designed the medallion window above the choir loft, which features a scene of the Nativity and another of Jesus in the temple at age twelve.
The interior, beguiling as it is, also boasts a number of practical features. One is the cast-iron grates which adorn the sides of the pews. The grates are discreetly attached to unobtrusive floor ducts which allowed the 19thcentury sanctuary to be heated in the winter (presumably with a coal-fired furnace) and cooled in the summer with a then state-of-the-art air-conditioning system. This system likely used fans to force the cold air from huge blocks of evaporating ice upward through the ducts in the floor.
The heating and air-conditioning systems were long ago modernized. But for Harp, the latest improvement, completed in the fall of 2005, is the most appreciated. That’s when a new pipe organ, designed and constructed by Patrick J. Murphy and Associates of Stowe, Pennsylvania, was installed. The august instrument replaced an organ which dated to 1929. Only the clarion trumpets, which hang below the medallion window, were re-used.
The church sees the organ not only as an asset to its own worship life, but also to the life of the greater musical community. There have been a number of concerts staged at St. Mark’s featuring world class organists, as well as a yearly series of silent movie screenings – artfully accompanied on the Murphy organ by Harp.
For the open house, Harp played pieces by Johann Bach and John Ireland. At Easter he always plays, “Christ our Passover,” primarily because he says, “It means so much spiritually to me.”
Harp and his father may quibble about both the pace and the place of music in Christian worship and the propriety of holding services in such a storied setting. But both would certainly concur with the words of 12th district councilman Carl Stokes, who represents St. Mark’s and its neighbors for the City of Baltimore.
“This is a great edifice, but the church is not the edifice. The church is the people inside.”
Editor’s note: This is the third part of a year-long series which will look at the places and people that make up the rich history and diverse nature of spirituality, belief and observance in Baltimore and beyond. Read the series here.