End of an era?

Elk­ton’s last chapel slated for auc­tion

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - By BRI­ANNA SHEA

bshea@ce­cil­whig.com

— While the county seat was once promi­nently known as the “Mar­riage Cap­i­tal of the East,” its most historic and last ac­tive wed­ding chapel is set to be put on the auc­tion block Wed­nes­day morn­ing.

The auc­tion, set to be-

ELK­TON

gin at 10 a.m. on the steps of Ce­cil County Circuit Court and run by Hunter’s Auc­tion­eer Ser­vices, may serve as the end of Elk­ton’s long his­tory with the once-boom­ing mar­riage in­dus­try. Ce­cil Bank will have an open­ing bid for the prop­erty lo­cated at 129 E. Main St., but the amount is un­known un­til the auc­tion, said Carol Hunter, of the auc­tion com­pany.

The Historic Lit­tle Wed­ding Chapel has a long

his­tory of min­is­ters mar­ry­ing peo­ple since the 1920s. Peo­ple came from all over the re­gion to Elk­ton due to Mary­land’s com­par­a­tively lax mar­riage li­cense rules and the town’s bor­der lo­ca­tion, mak­ing it a pop­u­lar lo­ca­tion to get mar­ried.

The Rev. Frank Smith, chapel owner and min­is­ter, said he has mar­ried al­most 6,000 cou­ples and the chapel has seen hun­dreds of thou­sands of cou­ples mar­ried since it opened. Smith’s late-wife, Bar­bara, pur­chased the chapel in 1980, and he moved into the build­ing af­ter his wife’s death in 2013.

He said the chapel has a his­tory with mak­ing ap­pear­ances in TV shows and other news me­dia out­lets, such as the Ce­cil Whig, ABC’s “Good Morn­ing Amer­ica” and Na­tional Ge­o­graphic.

Smith re­ceived no­tice from Ce­cil Bank that it was no longer fund­ing his busi­ness eq­uity and wanted full pay­ment within 30 days of the no­tice last year. The bank it­self is un­der a di­rec­tive from the U.S. Fed­eral Re­serve Sys­tem to raise capita to be deemed ad­e­quately cap­i­tal­ized. Smith said he was up to date with his first mort­gage and eq­uity line, but the bank re­quested $80,000 for the busi­ness line of credit.

“I had no way of pay­ing the $80,000 busi­ness loan,” he said Mon­day.

The bank be­gan the fore­clo­sure process in Au­gust while Smith, along with his lo­cal lawyers who rep­re­sented him pro bono, tried to fight the fore­clo­sure process. They were ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful, he said. In Fe­bru­ary, a judge ruled in fa­vor of the bank to pro­ceed with the fore­clo­sure on the build­ing.

To help raise funds to try to avert the loss of the historic busi­ness, Smith’s grand­daugh­ter, Anna Smith, set up a GoFundMe page to raise the money, but only about $700 was raised.

“It has a beau­ti­ful am­biance about it,” Smith said about the chapel. “You just you feel all the old wed­dings, it’s just a very com­fort­able place to have a wed­ding, es­pe­cially a small one.”

Smith said he does not an­tic­i­pate the prop­erty to sell at auc­tion, but if it does, he does not ex­pect it to stay a chapel. There is not much money in mar­ry­ing peo­ple, he said. He said he mar­ries about 150 cou­ples a year at an av­er­age of $200 per wed­ding, earn­ing a mea­ger liv­ing, though it is one he loves. Smith said peo­ple are not get­ting mar­ried as of­ten as peo­ple did in the past.

He did try to find an­other owner to con­tinue to the chapel’s tra­di­tion, but was un­suc­cess­ful due to the amount of money made at each wed­ding. Smith said he will stay in the build­ing as long as he can.

“I’m as­sum­ing it’s not go­ing to sell, the bank will be stuck with it and maybe they’ll al­low me to stay just to have some­body in here and keep the tra­di­tion go­ing,” he said.

Smith does not an­tic­i­pate that an­other owner of the build­ing would try to adapt the historic struc­ture to an­other use, due to the cost to bring the build­ing up to code for newer Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act stan­dards. Other needed up­grades in­clude a new heat­ing and air con­di­tion­ing sys­tem and a kitchen, and com­plet­ing re­pairs, such as a new roof. He es­ti­mates that it may take up to $500,000 to ren­o­vate it for use as apart­ments or a com­mer­cial busi­ness.

“I don’t ex­pect there to be an­other owner. You’d have to go from scratch, ba­si­cally,” he said. “I ex­pect it to just col­lapse, roof to fall in and the in­sides to go.”

De­spite its crest­fallen end, Smith said he has many fond memories of the chapel.

Smith said his fa­vorite mem­ory of the chapel is mar­ry­ing peo­ple be­cause it is a spe­cial time for cou- ples — one that he is able to take part in that. Get­ting mar­ried at the Historic Lit­tle Wed­ding Chapel has be­come a fam­ily tra­di­tion for many, as sev­eral gen­er­a­tions from the same fam­ily have mar­ried there.

Smith said he has wed­dings booked through July, but noth­ing fur­ther out. He said he will con­tinue to marry cou­ples at home wed­dings.

Town lead­ers also ex­pressed their sad­ness over the an­nounce­ment of the chapel’s auc­tion, but hope that bright days are still ahead.

Mary Jo Jablonksi, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Elk­ton Cham­ber and Al­liance, said she hopes any new owner of the build­ing will keep it a chapel.

“Keep it as a wed­ding chapel and the sign stays on the front of the build­ing,” Jablonksi said.

Mayor Rob Alt said he is sad­dened by the turn of events, but hopes who­ever buys the chapel will main­tain it as one.

CE­CIL WHIG PHOTO BY BRI­ANNA SHEA

The Historic Lit­tle Wed­ding Chapel, lo­cated at 129 E. Main St., is go­ing to be auc­tioned on Wed­nes­day. It is the last re­main­ing ac­tive chapel in Elk­ton, a left­over from the by­gone era of the town’s rep­u­ta­tion as the “Mar­riage Cap­i­tal of the East.”

CE­CIL WHIG PHOTO BY BRI­ANNA SHEA

The Rev. Frank Smith stands at the al­ter in the Historic Lit­tle Wed­ding Chapel.

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