Basilica windows vote is put off

City commission to decide whether stained glass will stay at Catholic cathedral

January 14, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The city's Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation approved plans for exterior restoration work on the national landmark Basilica of the Assumption last night, but postponed a vote on the hotly contested removal of its nine stained-glass windows sought by the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

More than 40 people, with divided opinions on the windows, turned out last night for a hearing on the $32 million project by the commission, whose approval is needed for exterior changes to historic buildings.

But after hearing testimony from supporters and opponents, commissioners expressed reservations about the proposed relocation of the Basilica's stained-glass windows to a new church being built in Howard County and said they would revisit the question in another meeting, most likely next month.

They approved all other aspects of the Basilica plans, which include a reconfiguration of the roof with new copper and wood shingles. The Basilica was dedicated in 1821 - the nation's first Roman Catholic cathedral.

Among the critics last night was Stuart Seiple, 27, a graduate student who grew up in Baltimore and who comes from an eighth-generation Catholic family whose members have attended Mass at the Basilica throughout its history. "Removing the stained glass is contrary to history and the will of many congregants," he said.

Leaders of the Basilica want to replace the windows, which depict biblical scenes as well as events of Maryland history, with clear glass windows in keeping with the original 1820s neoclassical architecture of the cathedral, considered a masterpiece.

Clear glass symbolizes freedom of worship in American society and allows natural light into the cathedral - an occurrence welcomed by many in prayer, said proponents of the restoration plan.

Robert J. Lancelotta Jr., executive vice president of the Basilica Historic Trust which is directing the project, said the restoration will shed more light on the cathedral - literally and figuratively. "The Basilica shouldn't be Baltimore's best-kept secret."

Leading the opposition to the change is Baltimore lawyer John C. Murphy, whose father, Frederick Murphy, was lead architect in the 1940s renovation that installed the stained glass.

"You guys are making a great big mistake if you treat this as just an architectural building," he told the commission. "The church history has evolved, and that has to be respected."

Speaking of the 1940s, Murphy said the Basilica was racially integrated then by Archbishop Michael Curley, who led the changes made to the cathedral, including the colorful stained-glass windows. "There, ladies and gentleman, is your period of significance," he said.

By contrast, Basilica restoration architect John G. Waite and others leading the project have singled out 1866 as the time with the greatest historical significance and aim to restore the structure to that period. It was then that the nation's Catholic bishops met in Baltimore to try to heal Civil War division.

Those who think the Basilica's interior is gloomy welcome the return of 24 skylights and the clear glass window panes. The Mount Vernon Cultural District, Baltimore Development Corp., Preservation Maryland and the National Trust for Historic Preservation wrote letters or spoke in favor of the restoration plan.

In 1821, the cathedral's presence on what was then Baltimore's highest hill was a strong statement for Catholics, who fled persecution in England. The Basilica is considered the finest intact work of the architect of the United States Capitol, Benjamin H. Latrobe.

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