Restoring the Old Parish House, brick by brick
By Kathy Bryant
“We want the Old Parish House to be a showpiece for the public,” said Robert Marsili, the city’s director of public works.
To achieve this ideal, the City of College Park has been extensively repairing and restoring the historic structure, at 4711 Knox Road, in the city’s Old Town neighborhood. The restoration has been ongoing for several years, with final work underway this spring.
Built in 1817, the Old Parish House was originally a barn serving the Calvert Mansion and is one of only two surviving outbuildings from the Riversdale Estate, which is also known as Baltimore House or Calvert Mansion, in Riverdale Park. The barn is believed to have had three iterations over its lifetime. According to the late Bill Lescure, a descendant of the Calverts, who owned the estate, the barn was used to store tobacco at one time. The building is a single-story structure with a gable roof, segmentally arched windows and side walls supported by brick buttresses.
Now more than 200 years old, the building was in need of significant repairs, which were detailed in a 2016 report prepared by Thomas Taltavull, a principal with TJT Architects, in Laytonsville. The report estimated that the project could cost just under $150,000. “We worked hard to do this in a historically accurate way,” Marsili said, noting that the city also chose to use a local firm. The work is being done by Contracting Specialists Incorporated, on Berwyn Road.
The first phase of the project involved replacing the roof and ceilings. Taltavull’s report found that the trusses were sagging, causing the walls to bow. The building was closed to the public until roof repairs made it safe for use again.
During the second phase of the restoration, which began three years ago, contractors began repairing and replacing windows, with an eye to historical accuracy. “One window was replaced in the back kitchen with a more appropriate window,” Marsili noted. (The kitchen is the newer part of the building.) A total of 11 windows were repaired in 2018.
The third phase of repairs started in fall 2021 and are being made to the exterior masonry. This work has included removing paint, and cleaning, repairing and replacing bricks and mortar. A portion of the masonry work was paid for with a preservation grant of $38,500 from the Maryland National-Capital Park and Planning Commission; this amount was included in the initial cost estimate.
“The masonry work in the old church portion had previous repairs done many, many years ago that did not match the original and mortar that wasn’t right that needed to be repaired and repointed,” Marsili said. A few bricks had deteriorated and had to be removed. Some of them couldn’t be reused, but, Marsili added, “We’re utilizing some of the bricks we removed. The replacement bricks are very special and historical; they’re a little larger than regular bricks.”
LimeWorks.us, a company based in Pennsylvania that specializes in historical renovations, is doing the masonry work. “They came down and did the analysis of the mortar,” Marsili said. “They provided us with a matched up composite.”
As of early April, masonry repairs are 85% complete, according to Marsili. “Now we’re having a discussion about whether to recoat the exterior walls with paint or leave the building as is, with the exposed brick,” Marsili said. “Without the paint, the building looks like a very historical structure.” Marsili also noted that the brickwork needed specific protections. “The breathable sealant protects and coats the bricks. The brickwork needs to breathe,” he said.
My great-grandfather, John Oliver Johnson, bought the property from Ella Calvert Campbell in 1889 as part of his larger plan to develop Old Town. Johnson named the subdivision College Park, according to an article about him in the Washington Star newspaper. The name Johnson chose was a fitting recognition of the Maryland Agricultural College (now the University of Maryland), located in the heart of the community.
Johnson deeded the building to a local congregation in 1892, and within a few years, it was under the auspices of the Episcopal church and was known as St. Andrew’s Chapel. When St. Andrew’s congregation moved to their new home on College Avenue, the building became its parish house.
I live on Columbia Avenue in a home that Johnson gave to his daughter Emily, who was my great-aunt. She married Warner T. L. Taliaferro at the Old Parish House in June, 1896. Theirs was the first wedding performed in the chapel.
St Andrew’s has a stained glass window in the church’s foyer commemorating Johnson’s gift of the building. The Old Parish House served as headquarters of the College Park Woman’s Club from the late 1950s until the city purchased the building in 1998. The city now rents out the building as a public meeting place and for special events. One very special, very memorable event took place in 2017, when Mark and Leslie Montroll organized the 200th anniversary celebration of the city’s beloved treasure.
How fortunate am I to be a fourth-generation resident, able to walk to the site of my great-aunt’s wedding? How fortunate are we to live in a city that cares enough to preserve the barn that once served the great Calvert mansion? If those bricks could talk, I’d imagine they’d share my gratitude.