Planning under way to preserve historic Green Hill Church

By Brice Stump
Posted 9/21/22

Saving a major Wicomico County historical landmark just got easier for a committee that’s just finished developing a comprehensive plan to continue restoring Old Green Hill Church.

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Planning under way to preserve historic Green Hill Church

Those taking part in the annual St. Bartholomew’s Day Celebration gather outside Old Green Hill Church following a special annual service at the historic church. For decades the landmark has been undergoing extensive restoration and major changes are expected in the next several years to restore it to its original 1733 appearance.
Those taking part in the annual St. Bartholomew’s Day Celebration gather outside Old Green Hill Church following a special annual service at the historic church. For decades the landmark has been undergoing extensive restoration and major changes are expected in the next several years to restore it to its original 1733 appearance.
Brice Stump Photo

Saving a major Wicomico County historical landmark just got easier for a committee that’s just finished developing a comprehensive plan to continue restoring Old Green Hill Church.

Located just north of Whitehaven, and within yards of the Wicomico River, Old Green Hill, built in 1733, hasn’t had routine Sunday services for more than 150 years.

Nearly 100 people gathered there in late August to celebrate the one day of the year when the doors are open for a worship service and picnic marking St. Bartholomew’s Day. It’s been observed here annually for about 150 years.

Completed in 1733, Anglican services were routinely conducted here until the Revolution. Green Hill, like so many churches that relied on funding by the Crown, suddenly found themselves struggling to stay afloat. As an Episcopal church, membership waned as the rural population dwindled.

Soon after the Civil War, Green Hill was almost in ruins and by the 1930s it was feared the brick church would slide into the river. Both times it was saved, and to make sure the church remains safe and sound, members of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church’s Green Hill Church Committee and Preservation Sub-Committee have just finished and reviewed a comprehensive plan prepared by Barton Ross & Partners, Architects of Chestertown and Easton, that sets goals for restoring and caring for Green Hill.

Though under the ownership of the Episcopal Diocese of Easton, St. Peter’s in Salisbury represents  the diocese’s  interest in preserving the mother church of Stepney Parish. “All the Episcopal churches in Wicomico County are daughter or granddaughter churches of Old Green Hill,” said Lee Ellen Griffith, who chairs the Green Hill Church Committee that was established in 2018.

Architect Ross, noted for his expertise and knowledge of period structures by local historical societies, and private property owners, has been working on the plan for about two years.

The report has it all, Ross said. “All the information about the church known to date,

from complex paint and mortar analyses to architecture history of the structure, to detailed insights into the original interior design and layout, is included.”

“Barton’s plan prioritizes what we have to do. He has done a masterful job on this 200-page plan,” Griffith said.

That report notes the history of the church’s decline and repairs by the 1840s, and a major rebuilding in the 1880s that replaced 18th-century windows, shutters, altar, and perhaps even the wood flooring.

In 1887, following “restoration,”  Old Green Hill Church was renamed St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church. Each year a special celebration service is held here to honor St. Bartholomew’s Day. Yet Old Green Hill remains the preferred name.

 Saving a historical structure takes more than good intentions and zeal. It also comes with ever-growing and never-ending costs.

The Very Rev. David Michaud, of St. Peter’s and chair of the Green Hill Church Committee, said his church and the diocese are in this for the long haul.

“The diocese and the committees of St. Peter’s are aggressively engaged and committed to preservation of this one-of-a-kind church,” Michaud said.

Griffith noted that the plan was funded in part by grants from the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore, the Beach to Bay Heritage Area of the Maryland Heritage Area Authority, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, as well as funding from the Diocese of Easton.

Though hopeful to acquire grants through different sources, the committee has shied from funds that come with required easements. “We will rely on people making donations to support this project and to help us,” said Tom Phillips, co-chair of the  Preservation Sub-Committee. “Yes,” he said, “it’s difficult to keep this going unless we find people that really care and have an appreciation, a passion, for history, like Bill Wilson who has worked with us since the early 1980s.”

Wilson, a retired educator, is a volunteer and longtime champion of the efforts to save historic Pemberton Hall, north of the church. Wilson, not an Episcopalian, is co-chair of the preservation committee and has offered advice on preservation objectives and methods.

“Bill is an invaluable asset to our committee,” Phillips said. “He has so much history and simply knows about architecture and accurate, authentic historic preservation procedures. He's detail oriented.”

In the “early years’” of the modern-day effort to save the church, Wilson was joined by Dr. Robert McFalin and Phillip’s father, the late H. Layfield Phillips Jr., who was caretaker of the church for more than 50 years.

It was McFarlin, as chair of the Green Hill Preservation Committee in the 1980s, who asked for a “Historical Structure Report,” because, as McFarlin wrote “The Committee is in need of an immediate, intermediate and long-range game plan for the authentic restoration of Green Hill Church.”

Though there have been differences of perspectives on restoration goals, between committee members and others over the years, Wilson and McFarlin pushed for work being done that was reflective of period authenticity.

A roof of wooden shingles, just like the original, was added in 1982  and replaced in 2004The last major project was the replication of the two sets of 18th century doors. The four, 10-foot-high door sections were installed in the summer of 2021?? wrong at a cost of $40,000 or $60,000. Each set weighs in excess of 300 pounds.

The next major project, suggested by Ross’ plan, is replacing the existing shutters, added in the 1880s rebuilding.

Like other architecture studies, getting the new shutters “right”  is the culmination of decades of study by noted architectural historians, including Dr. Chandlee Foreman, the late Michael Bourne of Chestertown and Ross’ work.

Ross said that when the shutters are replaced, visitors here will see almost exactly what the parishioners saw in 1733 as they walked up to the church.  

Work is expected to begin within the coming months to have them built and installed at a cost of $60,000.

Next Phillips said, is the restoration of the interior. “This is a huge, huge undertaking.”

 With each restoration step, the cherished brick church takes on more of its original 1733 authenticity.

There is something mystical, if not surreal, about sitting in a wooden pew that has initials carved or painted onto the deep dark honey-colored wood almost 250 years ago.

Before there was a nation, a revolution, and a first president, worshippers came to hear the Word of God.

They came by horseback, boat, some walked, others jostled by carriage or wagon.

They sat in the same wooden pews, perhaps shivering from the damp cold In the single room with no heat.

 Through large windows, children sitting in the  65-by-40 foot room may have looked for passing boats on the Wicomico River, just yards from their pews.

With the shutters open an abundance of light brightens the pews, where the children sat and helped Ross see elusive details in the rough surface of the east-end brick wall.

In preparation for his report, Ross, up a ladder and with a flashlight, scrutinized every inch of the wall where the present day brick altar is now, looking for the rusted remnants of nails or nail holes. He found both which suggests, like Old Christ Church in Laurel, that a reredos (decorative a large wood panel behind the altar mounted to the wall) may have originally been installed on the wall.

“It could have featured,” Griffith said, “the Ten Commandments or the Lord’s Prayer. It was a common feature in Colonial churches.”

Outside, he scrapped mortar samples from between handmade bricks, granular evidence that would reveal the recipe used by the Colonial builders. He examined wood in pews, window casings, and beams. Ross was unlocking secrets the church has held for three centuries.

Preparing the report was an ambitious and challenging endeavor, as Ross followed theories and research by noted architectural historian H. Chandlee Foreman and his mentor, the late Michael Bourne, and developed his own conclusions of the architectural transformations of Old Green Hill Church.

History sleuths trying to solve architectural mysteries of Old Green Hill got really lucky when a folk-art style painting was bought by Edward “Ned” Fowler of Laurel.

He was top bidder in a 2010 auction selling deaccessioned items from the Somerset County Historical Society. Fowler is still confused as to why the society sold it. Green Hill Church was once located in Somerset County territory that went north as far as Laurel in the 18th century. Parishioners from the east side of the river, in what is now Somerset County, attended services there. Rev. Alexander Adams, who was in the pulpit for 65 years, lived on a farm just outside Princess Anne on the Wicomico Creek.

“When I first saw it, I said, ‘Whoa! How did this end up in an auction?’ I bought it because we are Episcopalians and have family ties to Green Hill.” Fowler believes the painting dates to after the Civil War. Others date it to the mid-1850s. It remains the oldest known image of the landmark. The earliest known photo is believed to take from the early 1800s shows the church before extensive rebuilding.

 Years of conjecture held that the roof terminated at the eaves with a “kick-out” or cove plaster molding feature at the eaves. It helped move rainwater away from the foundation and made for a unique visual accent.

Researchers found evidence of the kick-out but it was the painting that confirmed speculations. It was reinstalled in 2004.

Decades of work has already gone into the preservation of a building that was almost destroyed.

Phillips knows the story about the precarious situation the church faced in the 1940s

“The Wicomico River had eroded the shoreline within 12 feet  of the south-east corner of the church,” he said. “My grandfather, H. Layfield Phillips Sr., recycled concrete and bricks to stop the erosion.

“If he hadn't done that we probably wouldn't have any church left,” Wilson said. The Phillips family owned a road construction business that built much of Route 13 in the Salisbury area in the 1930s-40s. It was a case of having the right people at the right time.

In 1935, the “Wicomico News” reported “The giant (oak and pine) trees whose roots once held the soil firm against erosion are now about to fall into the river. The church would then be in very great danger.”

Erosion of the bluff on which Green Hill Church has stood for more than 200 years now threatens destruction to that ancient structure unless early remedial steps are taken to safeguard it.”

One man, taking the bull by the horns, saved the day.

The church “on the bluff, which” was listed on the National Register Historic Places in 1973, is also distinctive for its setting. Surrounded by trees and shoreline, the church with no plumbing or electric service looks right at home in the rural setting, which architectural historian Chandlee Foreman described in the 1950s as “provincial isolation.”

That isolation is often attributed to its safety.

“It is probably because of this isolation that Green Hill Church has remained remarkably unchanged through the centuries,” Ross noted in his report. He considers Green Hill to be one of the most significant early 18th-century churches in Maryland.

It seems Old Green Hill was destined to stand alone despite hopeful plans for it to have been the center of “Green Hill Town and Port,” with its 100-lots planned in 1707.

So important had Old Green Hill become, as an icon in Wicomico County, that it was selected to represent the county on one of the rarest sets of maritime silver in the nation.

Green Hill church is featured on the premier 48-piece repousse silver dining service by Samuel Kirk and Sons Inc,. of Baltimore, presented to the armored cruiser “Maryland” in 1906. It was, a newspaper account noted, “a $5,000 gift from the citizens of Maryland.”

It was later transferred to the battleship “Maryland” in 1921. A pair of gravy boats and ladles, representing Wicomico and Somerset counties, has Green Hill featured twice, and well as the “Ben Davis House” that once stood about a quarter of a mile south of the church.

The house site also has a direct connection with church history. It was here that Alice Scott, who died in 1744, and Ester Scott, who died in 1748, are thought to have been buried.

The stones were moved inside the church for safe keeping in the early 1990s by Wilson and the late Dr. Robert McFarlin.

The architect’s report refers to them as “two rare 18th century slate gravestones … cut by William Stevens (of Rhode Island, a company still in business today, according to Bill Wilson) in the first half of the 18th century and shipped by sea, at great expense to George Day Scott, at Green Hill.”

All the generations, all the faces and personalities, all of the young and old of centuries past are gone. Except for these two women, who shadows and ghosts are locked in gray stone.

The Scott stones are indirectly linked to yet another phase of Green Hill Church preservation objectives. One project now marked as a priority is to determine the location of graves and hidden stone markers in the church yard on the north side of the building . There is evidence that 18th century tombstones are hidden there.

Each day since the Scott stones were placed inside, warm sunlight, filtered through dusty glass panes and threads of cobweb, flows so slowly across the faces of the stones.

“We recognize their incredible significance to the history of the church,” Griffith said. “They are right up there with the silver communion service.”

In 1752, Rev. Alexander Adams gave a five-piece silver communion service to Stepney Parish. The flagon, the largest item in the set, holds almost a gallon of wine.

“It is one of the Eastern Shore's treasured artifacts,” Ross wrote in his report. As is traditional, it was used during the service here in August.

Even the restoration of the 1701, Green Hill Church Bible, from which the Rev. Alexander Adams would have read to the Scott parishioners, had been contemplated. In 1995, the cost to restore it was estimated at about $4,000. It remains in the bank vault, unrestored.

It is remarkable that an almost  325-year-old fragile Bible has survived while important features within the church vanished.

While the work, particularly the major rebuilding of the 1880s saved the building, it eliminated key original interior elements.

Visitors here, from 1950 to the present day, have seen the same interior with its raised brick altar at the east end, installed in the 1940s and the tiny dark wood sacristy screen in the south-west corner installed in the 1880s. Other shared and long time familiar sights include the brick floor, barrel shaped ceiling of narrow tongue and groove pine boards, exposed brick walls with a faded but pinkish or lavender color on existing patches of plaster and raw brick, also from the 1880s reworking of the church.

Plan proposals, Phillps said, are significant, and the work will try to correct numerous mistakes made in the past.

The biggest insidious threat to the church came from the humble seemingly insignificant termite which is thought to have gobbled up ancient wood, from floorboards to pews and pulpit.

Coming up soon will be the reinstallation of the wood floor and restoration of the pews. The report suggests the wooden floor may have been removed in 1844 or 1885, but was certainly gone by the early 1900s.

Ross speculates the entire floor was originally covered with heart pine and the floor on which the pews sat was elevated above the grade of the aisles.

Over the years termites and water seepage contributed to the rot of the wood and eventually bricks replaced the floors. That those in the aisle have an obvious wear pattern indicates to Ross that they had been walked on for decades.

“We will remove all the pews, restore those that need work and build new pews to match those that were removed years ago to accommodate space allocated for the choir. Some pews will be relocated to their original orientation and all of the existing altar elements will be removed,” Ross said.

The “existing altar elements” includes the massive solid concert and brick altar platform put in by H. Layfield Phillips Sr., in the 1940s. “I think it weighs several tons,” Phillips said, “and will come out the same times we work on the pews and floor. It all has to happen at the same time.”

Though the 50-box pews probably could have held a few hundred worshippers, probably the largest group to be on church grounds came in 1933. A celebration marking Green Hill’s Bicentennial included a pageant watched by about 1,000 visitors.

The comprehensive plan has answered some questions about the church’s architectural mysteries and raised others. All this research later, there is one big, confusing perplexing architectural mystery, Ross said, that he wishes he could solve.

Was there a gallery on the west-end of the church?

In 1844, the Diocese of Maryland asked officials of St. Mary’s Church in Tyaskin and Green Hill if their churches had galleries. “The answer was ‘yes, two galleries in good condition,’ ” Griffith said.

Research in the church records notes that on Aug 25, 1771, “To John Hobbs for building Gallery in Green Hill …”

Then a curious record entry of Aug. 2, 1777,  “By you(r) Agreement to Build a Gallery in Green Hill ….”

“Problem is,” Ross said, “I couldn't find any evidence whatsoever verifying the installation of a gallery. No nail holes or ‘ghost’ of a previous structure.”

If state of the art technology can prove the gallery existed, it too would be a significant and hugely expensive project to be considered in the future.

“We are so proud of what we have done. We know we have a huge task ahead of us,” Phillips said, pausing,  “but we will get it done.”

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