Renovated dome to let light shine

Basilica: Replicas of original skylights will reveal a glimmer of architect Latrobe's vision.

November 20, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

For more than a century, a mystical, diffused light known as the lumiere mysterieuse emanated from 24 skylights, filling the sanctuary of the Basilica of the Assumption.

But the skylights in the basilica's Great Dome were sealed during a renovation in the 1940s, leaving it a darker, more subdued place of worship.

Now, as part of a multimillion-dollar restoration of the nation's first Roman Catholic cathedral, workers are peeling back the copper sheeting of the Great Dome of the basilica on Cathedral Street and are installing the first four reproductions of the original skylights. The project will partially re-create the vision of architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

The restoration, when it is completed by 2006, in time for the bicentennial of the start of the basilica's construction, will radically alter its interior. The stained-glass windows will be replaced with clear glass that will let in sunlight. A white marble floor will be installed, and the pews will be white. The marble communion rail will be replaced with one made of mahogany - all part of the cathedral's original design.

The result will be a significantly brighter interior, which was the intent of Latrobe and John Carroll, the first archbishop of Baltimore.

"The aim of the restoration is to restore the light to the basilica," said Robert J. Lancelotta Jr., executive director of the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust, which is raising funds for the work.

Carroll intended the cathedral to be a symbol of the religious freedom enshrined in the Bill of Rights. "That's why there were skylights, letting in the natural light. That's why the clear windows. The light was a symbol of freedom," Lancelotta said.

Latrobe, the architect of the U.S. Capitol, originally wanted to build the cathedral in a neo-Gothic style, like the great cathedrals of Europe. But Carroll, wary of arousing simmering anti-Catholic sentiment, didn't want a building that would call to mind the powerful and grandiose churches of the Middle Ages.

"It had to be light, up to date and very evocative of the ideas of the new republic," said John G. Waite, architect designing the restoration. It had to be in the neo-Classical style, like Latrobe's design of the Capitol.

"Very firmly, but gently, he persuades Latrobe that this is the way to go," Waite said.

Later generations of Catholics, as they became more confident of their identity, made changes to the cathedral's design that were more ornate and Gothic in style. "They completely lost sight of Archbishop Carroll's vision and Latrobe's intent," Waite said.

Among the changes, in the mid-1940s, stained-glass windows were installed and the skylights, their frames deteriorating, were removed and the openings closed. Electric lights were installed to re-create the sunlight effect, with disappointing results.

With that, one of the building's most distinctive features was lost.

The skylights are based on a design that Thomas Jefferson saw at the Halle au Ble, the Paris grain market. He suggested Latrobe use it when the U.S. Capitol was remodeled after it was burned during the War of 1812. According to correspondence between them, Latrobe fought Jefferson on the suggestion, Waite said.

"Jefferson insisted Latrobe put in a skylight there," Waite said. "It was done over Latrobe's great opposition. He was sure they would leak; he was sure they wouldn't work."

But he must have been satisfied, because when he designed Carroll's cathedral, "Latrobe does exactly what he didn't want to do in the Capitol."

His dome design is actually a dome within a dome. The 24 skylights are set in an exterior wooden dome. The light passed through a 22-foot-wide oculus in the center of an interior masonry dome. The result was diffused light filtering into the sanctuary, the source of which was not visible to worshippers below.

The work being done is preliminary to the full restoration project. Just four windows, one-sixth of those originally in the dome, will be completed by Christmas. And there are still experiments to be done before tackling the job. For example, the bottom third of the dome will be re-sheathed in copper, but the center section will be covered with cedar shingles, before top third is completed with copper.

The architects think Latrobe used cedar shingles, but he might have used slate. They'll determine that during this phase, funded by a $100,000 grant by the Getty Grant Program.

"This way you can look at it and decide [whether] you made the wrong decision," said Thomas P. McCracken, vice president of Henry H. Lewis Contractors, which is doing the work.

Waite, the architect for the restoration, has extensively researched the physical evidence at the basilica and documentation left by Latrobe to guide his efforts.

"This is above-ground archaeology," he said, as he stood on a scaffolding yesterday next to workers scurrying over the dome's surface. And he believes his efforts have uncovered a treasure.

"This is the most important surviving public building of the period," Waite said. "The only building to compare is the U.S. Capitol, and that was burned by the British.

"Monticello has a dome with the same framing system, but it doesn't have the skylights that puncture the field of the dome," he said. "This is unique."

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