Cumberland Times-News

April 17, 2008

History of town can be read in its architecture

Betty VanNewKirk, Columnist

One of the most historic sites in Frostburg is the property at the corner of Main and Water streets occupied by St. Paul's Lutheran Church and its parsonage.

The land itself is significant. It is part of Military Lot #3629, which was bought by Josiah Frost in 1810, when he realized that the projected National Road would be built across it.

The going rate was $2 an acre, but the 40-odd quarter-acre town lots that he laid out along the route were offered at $50 each. Of these, the lot at the intersection of the Road and Water Street was Number 23.

Not all of the land transactions in those early days found their way into the record books; it is not clear to whom Lot #23 was sold. In 1828, when John Clise paid taxes on it, it was assessed at $30; in 1853, Gerard and Isabel Clary sold it to Jacob Steyer for $1,400. He gave half it, "for $1 and other considerations,'' to the Lutheran congregation in 1857, but he received $1,000 for the half in 1871.

The parsonage is of historical interest because it is probably the oldest dwelling in Frostburg that still looks as it did when it was built. There had been an earlier house on that site, a small frame structure that was so dilapidated in 1872 that Mr. Oder, editor of the Mining Journal, congratulated the congregation of their decision to demolish it.

The new structure had to be squeezed between the church and the lot line, so, contrary to the fashion of the time, the front door was placed at the side of the building, close to the church entrance. As in "railroad flats'' in New York, the only access to rooms at the back, upstairs and down, was through other rooms.

That problem has been rectified only recently. There have been minor changes over the years; a brick kitchen addition to replace the wooden one destroyed in the fire of September 1874; indoor plumbing; central heating and air conditioning.

For 50 years or so there was a large veranda, added for the convenience of the parsonage families, but that has now been replaced by an entrance porch in the style of the original one. Windows are still the same size and shape as in 1872, and the original tin roof is intact. The house is a historical gem!

The church building has seen more alteration than the parsonage, and is actually older. It is not the original Lutheran house of worship; the congregation had its first communion service of record (obviously not the first time they had met together) on Aug. 14, 1808, in the Neff Meeting House, and later used a schoolhouse before outgrowing two churches of their own on other sites. When townspeople outnumbered farm families on the rolls, they were happy to accept Jacob Steyer's offer of "the most valuable lot in town'' in 1857.

At first glance, one gets the impression that the building completed in 1863 was different from the one we see today. It had a recessed entrance, a square wooden cupola as a bell tower, and small-paned, clear-glass windows.

There are confusing newspaper accounts that say the building was a total loss in the fire of 1874. Those reports were corrected, later, to say that "only the walls'' were left standing - and those are the walls of the present church.

By the time all the fire damage had been repaired, tastes had changed. Stained glass memorial windows were installed, an entrance vestibule was built, and the congregation tried to keep up with the denominational Joneses by adding a tower and spire, pointing the way to heaven.

More recently, St. Paul's has joined other congregations in the fads for red-painted doors and free-standing bulletin boards. There was serious discussion of tearing down the parsonage to make way for a parking lot. Fortunately, methods of correcting the layout of rooms and assorted plumbing problems were worked out, and an important landmark was saved.

History is not confined to museums or dusty textbooks. It can also be read in the architecture of our town, buildings erected to meet the needs and satisfy the tastes of the people who lived here. They help us to understand how we came to be what we are, and to realize that what we build or do today will determine what our descendants will be tomorrow.

Betty VanNewkirk is the historian for the Frostburg Museum.