Fate of windows determined

ARCHITECTURE

Archdiocese to move stained-glass designs to Howard parish

July 15, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

When architects began developing plans to restore Baltimore's Basilica of the Assumption several years ago, one of the touchiest aspects of the project was deciding the fate of nine stained-glass windows created and installed there in the 1940s.

The windows, designed by Conrad Schmidt Studios of New York, portray scenes from the Old Testament, the New Testament and Maryland and Catholic history. They have become a familiar part of the cathedral, which was built between 1806 and 1821. Most parishioners alive today have never seen the building without them.

The restoration architects, John G. Waite Associates of Albany and Beyer Blinder Belle of New York, concluded early on that the guiding principle for all future work should be to restore the basilica to the original design by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe and his patron, Archbishop John Carroll.

In keeping with that philosophy, the architects recommended removing the stained-glass windows, and other 20th-century modifications, and taking the interior back as much as possible to the way Latrobe envisioned it in the early 19th century. Although the stained-glass windows are well-crafted, they say, they aren't in keeping with the original design, which called for clear windows.

But that recommendation also raised a potentially thorny issue: If the stained-glass windows were to be removed, what would happen to them?

The Archdiocese of Baltimore has come up with a solution: The nine windows will be incorporated in a new church being designed for the Saint Louis Roman Catholic Congregation in the Clarksville section of western Howard County.

Cardinal William Keeler has approved a plan that calls for the windows to be "on permanent loan" to the Saint Louis congregation and incorporated into the $8 million, 1,250-seat church it is building off Route 108, just south of Route 32, to replace a 1980 structure it has outgrown. Ziger Snead Inc. of Baltimore is the architect.

Monsignor Joseph Luca said the congregation dates from 1855 and now has 4,500 families, or about 15,000 individuals. He said he suggested to Cardinal Keeler that the Saint Louis parish would be a good location for the windows and regards the decision to move them there a "wonderful blessing" for the new church.

"They're exceptionally beautiful works of art," he said. "We had planned to have stained-glass windows for our church. ... It's a wonderful fit."

Saint Louis parish was named after a former King of France, Louis IX. Luca said it was particularly appropriate to move the stained-glass windows to its new church, because Saint Louis is the parish that includes Doughoregan Manor.

About 4 miles from the church, the Doughoregan estate is a longtime home of the Carroll family and burial place of Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence and cousin of Archbishop John Carroll, who commissioned the basilica and is depicted in several of the windows.

Luca said he also is pleased because the Howard County church is only in the preliminary stages of planning, and that means the architect has a chance to design the church with the windows as a starting point, rather than being forced to fit them in as an afterthought.

"The most important thing is that they're going in a sacred space," and not just being treated like artifacts in a museum, said Robert Lancelotta, executive vice president of the nonprofit Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust.

Saint Louis parish is aiming to break ground by early 2004 and open the new church in 2005 -- its 150th anniversary -- or 2006. The $25-million basilica restoration is expected to begin next spring and be complete by 2006, so the schedules are not in conflict

One opponent of the idea of moving the windows is John Murphy, a Baltimore-based lawyer whose father was one of the architects who designed the 1940s basilica renovations that included the stained-glass windows.

Murphy, who is Catholic, said he can see why the Howard County church is happy to have the windows. But he doesn't understand why they have to be removed from Baltimore's basilica, just because they weren't part of Latrobe's vision. He said he likes the "mystical beauty" of the space with its stained-glass windows and fears the interior will no longer be as memorable or impressive.

"They're artistic works," he said. "If you take them out, the basilica will be the poorer for it."

Murphy said that buildings evolve and change over time, and it is considered standard practice in the field of historic preservation to retain and preserve changes that have acquired historic significance in their own right. "It's hard to say that these windows have not achieved significance."

Architect John Waite said during a recent visit to Baltimore that he agrees that the windows are good quality, but he doesn't believe they're appropriate for Latrobe's masterwork. He argues that they must be replaced with clear glass windows if the basilica is to regain its original aesthetic and historical integrity.

"I think it's an excellent solution," he said of the decision to move them to a new church in the parish associated with the Carroll family. "They're going to enhance the church where they're installed, and it will take away from the conflict here."

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