The Gothic revival structure now known as Westminster Hall, part of the University of Maryland at Baltimore’s campus, was built in 1852 as the Westminster Presbyterian Church. Two established congregations—the First Presbyterian Church and the Franklin Street Presbyterian Church—came together to form this new church on downtown’s West Side.
The First Presbyterian Church had been a gathering place of Baltimore’s elite upper classes since the 1760s. In January 1787, the congregation purchased property for a burying ground from Revolutionary War veteran John Eager Howard. The Western Burying Ground, as it was known, became the final resting place for at least 25 individuals who played a role in the Battle of Baltimore. Within these grounds lay the remains of Commodore Joshua Barney, the commander of the flotilla which the British forced into surrender at Bladensburg; Major General Samuel Smith, who led the Maryland Militia during the Battle of Baltimore and went onto serve as Baltimore’s Mayor as well as a U.S. Congressman and Senator; Edward Johnson, the city’s mayor during the Battle; Brigadier General John Stricker, commander of the American forces at North Point; John Stuart Skinner, an attorney who helped negotiate the release of American prisoners of war and witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry alongside Francis Scott Key; and Isaac McKim, aide-de-camp to Samuel Smith. The National Star-Spangled Banner Centennial Commission unveiled memorial tablets honoring “the heroes of both wars for American Independence” at Westminster Churchyard in a ceremony on Defender’s Day in 1914.
In addition to the residents of the burial grounds, its architecture is quite striking. A high brick wall was added to the grounds the year after the Battle of Baltimore. Maximilian Godefroy, responsible for the Battle Monument that remains the symbol of Baltimore City, designed the cemetery’s stately Egyptian Revival gateposts and the tomb of Samuel Smith after his death in 1839. In 1850, the congregations opted to construct a new church directly above the historic burial grounds. A city ordinance required all cemeteries to be affiliated with churches, and these Presbyterian parishes sought to erect a sturdy brick structure in order to preserve the graves in their care from desecration.