Bringing basilica into 21st century Restoration, upgrade planned for landmark

August 31, 1998|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

Anxious to "conserve and renew" its most significant architectural treasure, the Archdiocese of Baltimore is preparing to completely restore the Basilica of the Assumption, the nation's first Roman Catholic cathedral.

The Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust, a nonprofit group formed to maintain and protect the neoclassical landmark on Cathedral at Mulberry streets, has invited seven of the nation's top preservation architects to submit proposals for guiding its restoration.

After an architect is selected and a master plan is developed, the trust will move ahead with the restoration work, expected to cost at least $5 million. The money will come from the archdiocese's "Heritage of Hope" capital campaign and other sources.

The goal, leaders say, is to restore and upgrade the building ahead of the 200th anniversary of when construction began on it in 1806.

Although the archdiocese has many pressing needs, restoring the basilica is "a very high priority," said Cardinal William H. Keeler.

"We have to educate the young and take care of the poor, but we also have to have a concern for our heritage and our faith, and this is part of it," Keeler said.

Designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, chief architect of the U.S. Capitol, the basilica is "without question the greatest architectural, historical and artistic treasure of our church in the United States," Keeler said.

The historic trust would like to create a national museum on the grounds to tell the story of American Catholicism and the key role Marylanders have played, but first it needs a master plan for bringing the basilica into the 21st century, said chairman Wayne Ruth.

"The emphasis is to make sure the basilica is restored in time for its bicentennial, which is 2006," he said. "It seems like a lot of time, but it's not."

Dedicated in 1821, the building is also one of Baltimore's most important landmarks, said architectural historian Phoebe Stanton, who has agreed to serve on the panel that will select a restoration architect.

Historian "Henry-Russell Hitchcock once said it's the greatest early 19th-century building in the world," Stanton said. "It's a great building and it should be cared for, and they want to do that. It's a Baltimore gem."

It's also a clear example of church leaders using architecture and art to express the new religious freedom in the United States, said Robert Lancelotta Jr., the trust's executive director.

"The basilica is the place where great architecture, great art and great faith intersect," he said. "There's no other place, in this country at least, where those three elements come together to the same degree."

Considered the "mother church" of Catholicism in the United States and Latrobe's masterpiece, the building is officially known as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

It was designated a Minor Basilica in 1937 -- one of only about 30 religious buildings in North America to have that distinction -- and declared a national shrine in 1993. In canon law, the term "basilica" denotes a distinguished church upon which either ancient custom or papal decree has bestowed the name as a title of honor. There are four Major Basilicas, all in Rome.

Infrastructure repairs

As it approaches its bicentennial, the building needs extensive repairs to its infrastructure, including wiring, plumbing and ventilation systems. Planners also want to upgrade the 1961 air-conditioning system and explore ways to add additional restrooms, storage space, offices, meeting rooms and a possible subterranean worship area near the crypt -- a Latrobe idea that was never realized.

In addition, Keeler and other basilica trust members want to reverse some of the changes made in previous decades, such as the removal of windows in the dome that once allowed natural light into the sanctuary. They want to reopen those skylights and otherwise restore the building to reflect the vision of Latrobe and the Archbishop John Carroll, first bishop of the United States.

"In its original design, the interior was bathed with natural light from windows in the dome, and the church itself was, and is, a testament to a golden age when an ancient faith and a newfound freedom met," Keeler said. "Please God, these next few years will see this holy building and its heritage conserved and renewed, as much as possible, according to the original intent of Carroll and Latrobe."

Many students of architecture consider Baltimore's basilica to be the single most significant building in the city and Latrobe to be one of America's first great architects.

Cardinal James Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore for 44 years, once summed up its religious significance when he said, "What Mecca is to the Mohammedan, what the Temple of Jerusalem is to the Israelite, what St. Peter's Basilica is to the faithful of the Church Universal, this cathedral is to the American Catholic."

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