Lending history to a new cathedral

Churches: In Los Angeles, an exhibit of artifacts from the Baltimore basilica is seen as chance to publicize its restoration.

August 04, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

LOS ANGELES - When America's newest Roman Catholic cathedral opens in California next month, it will contain religious treasures borrowed from the country's oldest, the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore.

To mark the opening of the $200 million Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on Sept. 2, a Maryland-based group is preparing an exhibit there to celebrate Baltimore's basilica, known as the mother church of American Catholicism, which is poised to undergo a $25 million restoration.

For religious leaders in Los Angeles, the Baltimore exhibit is an opportunity to christen the new cathedral with art and artifacts that convey a sense of history and help trace the growth of Catholicism in America.

But the exhibit has the potential to offer much more than a history lesson. For stewards of Baltimore's basilica, the yearlong display is part of a campaign to spread the word about the restoration planned for the country's first cathedral.

Just as important, say leaders of the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust, it is a chance to raise the profile of the basilica as a national architectural landmark. They think the cathedral, built between 1806 and 1821, could be a tourism magnet for Baltimore - the American equivalent of St. Peter's in Rome - and want to start drawing national attention to it.

The Los Angeles exhibit is one of the first steps in that effort. Representatives of the trust, a nonprofit group formed to promote and protect the basilica, have also taken the lead in forming a nationwide consortium, called Latrobe's America to celebrate the basilica's architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

They have begun a Web site (www.baltimorebasilica.org) and are seeking to have the basilica declared a World Heritage site, a United Nations designation reserved for places deemed to have international cultural significance.

"To get this exposure on the West Coast is great for Baltimore and great for the basilica," Wayne Ruth, chairman of the trust, said of the exhibit. "If we do this right, people will come from all over the world to see it."

Called "North America's most beautiful church" by architectural historian Nicholas Pevsner, the cathedral was designated a basilica in 1937 by Pope Pius XI. That rare honor is bestowed by papal decree or ancient custom.

The new effort is designed to restore the building - which has been refurbished 14 times since 1850 - as much as possible to the appearance envisioned by Latrobe and John Carroll, America's first Catholic bishop, and to upgrade it for continued use in the 21st century.

The work is scheduled to begin in the spring and be completed by late 2005, in time for the building's bicentennial. Plans also call for the addition of a "pilgrimage center" and museum on the grounds for visitors from around the world.

$18 million raised

The trust has been raising money locally for several years and has $18 million of the $25 million needed.

To build national support for the project, trust representatives have begun traveling across the country to promote their plans.

Late last month in Los Angeles, Ruth and architect John Waite announced plans for the cathedral exhibit at the California Club, a gathering spot for prominent Los Angeles business people, and gave a 90-minute lecture about the restoration at the Getty Center, the hilltop arts complex run by the J. Paul Getty Trust. Then Ruth flew to New Jersey for a cocktail party with prospective donors.

The Baltimore group might have been able to raise all of the money it needs without a national campaign, but members say they wanted to reach outside Maryland for two reasons.

First, they don't want to be accused of using money needed by the Archdiocese of Baltimore for other causes, such as school maintenance. By going outside Maryland and raising money specifically for the basilica restoration - such as a $100,000 grant received from the Getty Trust - they aren't likely to be criticized for diverting funds from other local projects.

Second, trustees want to make it clear that Baltimore's basilica is a national landmark that deserves widespread attention and support - and, ideally, more visitors. They think an exhibit inside the nation's newest and largest cathedral, serving the largest archdiocese in the nation, will go a long way toward showing that restoring Baltimore's basilica is a project of national significance.

"It's a great opportunity for us," Ruth said. "Every Catholic bishop in the country is going to be in Los Angeles for the opening of the new cathedral, and Baltimore's basilica will be featured prominently. The exhibit will make the point that American Catholicism had its roots in Baltimore and that restoration of Baltimore's basilica is a project that every Catholic ought to support."

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