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Old Otterbein officials worry that Grand Prix could damage church

Inside the Old Otterbein United Methodist Church at Conway and Sharp streets hangs a 114-year-old chandelier with hundreds of crystal prisms.

The white walls contain about 20 windows dating from 1785, and each window has 40 individual panes from the church’s original construction. On the second level of the church is a pipe organ from the 1890s that reaches high to the ceiling.

This September, race cars will be zooming by mere yards from where the 226-year- old church sits during the Baltimore Grand Prix, racing repeatedly on Sept. 2 to Sept. 4.

“We’re praying — we’re a little scared, too,” said June Risley, Old Otterbein’s council chair. “We’ve very worried about the possible damage to this building in particular because of the noise. Noise creates a lot of vibration.”

The church last dealt with a significant amount of noise when the Baltimore Convention Center underwent expansion in the mid-1990s. The noise and rumbling caused Old Otterbein’s ceiling to crack, Risley said.

As for the church’s chandelier, it will have to be lowered and rested for the first time since it was installed in 1897, Risley said. Typically, when the church has the chandelier cleaned, it takes an hour to lower it to pew level. Risley said church officials are considering taking off each of the hundreds of crystal prisms and numbering them until they can be put back on after the race.

“We wouldn’t want it to come down and shatter everything below it,” she said.

The panes of the church’s windows would also be an expensive repair. A single pane is worth $2,500 because the glass isn’t manufactured anymore, Risley said. Only about 10 panes have been replaced with regular glass since the church was built.

But race organizers and city officials say they aren’t too worried. They conducted a sound test in the city when the race was first announced to see how strong the vibrations would be.

“The vibrations caused by a typical 18-wheel truck that rolls through Baltimore happen more on a weekend and are stronger than a race car,” said Lonnie Fisher, special projects manager for Baltimore Racing Development LLC.

Baltimore Racing Development officials and city officials met with church representatives in April to address concerns about noise and potential damage.

Baltimore City Councilman William H. Cole IV said even though the race is loud, the vibration won’t be an issue for the church. Cole attended the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach race in April and checked out the noise among buildings on the race track.

“You can absolutely hear it. When you’re inside, it’s tolerable,” Cole said. “It’s a really loud hum, but they don’t create vibration. They go by so fast, you don’t even feel them.”

If anything were to go wrong at the event and damage were caused by vandalism or noise and vibration, Fisher said the event’s insurance would likely cover it.

“We’re really excited about the race, we really are,” Risley said. “But we’re concerned about the security and vulnerability of the property obviously.”

But as far as Sunday services go, don’t count on hearing a sermon Sept. 4. It will be one of the few times in the church’s 226 years that it will cancel Sunday services, she said.