Fate of cathedral's stained glass still isn't clear

Architecture

January 19, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

There is no consensus within Baltimore's preservation commission on whether it's acceptable to remove nine stained glass windows from the historic Basilica of the Assumption.

But the panelists seem to agree on one point: If the windows are to be taken out as a restoration architect recommends, they shouldn't be taken far.

The Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust, the non-profit group coordinating a $32 million restoration plan for the early 19th-century cathedral, has suggested that its 1940s-era stained glass windows be incorporated in a new church planned for Howard County.

"That really gets my goat," City Council member John Cain, the council's representative on the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), said during a two-hour hearing last week. "Those windows were built for Baltimore City, and I would keep them in Baltimore City, no matter what."

"Those windows are a part of Baltimore history," agreed panel member Marion Blackwell. "They need to be kept on site. If they are to be removed, we need to promote them in a visitor center" or some other display space.

"I am troubled by the removal of real historical artifacts from the site," added panel member Donald Kann, an architect. "I would encourage ways to celebrate them on site. To isolate them from the building would be a great mistake."

Designed by Conrad Schmidt Studios of New York, the windows 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 with later additions.

Robert Lancelotta Jr., executive vice president of the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust, said the restoration architects recommended the stained glass windows be replaced with clear glass windows identical to the ones in place before the stained glass was installed in 1946.

While the stained glass windows are clearly well-crafted, he said, they were not part of the original design by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, and the primary goal of the restoration effort is to take the building back as much as possible to the way Latrobe envisioned it. John G. Waite Associates of Albany is the restoration architect.

In addition, Lancelotta said, the installation of stained glass windows changed the quality of natural light coming into the sanctuary, and clear glass windows will restore the light to the way Latrobe intended.

Lancelotta said he suggested making the windows part of a new church because he thought historians and others would be pleased to know they were still being used as part of a "sacred space." He said he believed that reusing the windows in that way would be considered preferable to displaying them as isolated artifacts.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore has made preliminary arrangements to have the stained glass windows incorporated in a church that the St. Louis Roman Catholic Congregation plans to build 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 St. Louis congregation, assuming CHAP allows them to be removed from the basilica.

St. Louis is building a 1,250-seat church off Route 108 to replace a 1980 structure it has outgrown. The new church will be about four miles from the Doughoregan estate, longtime home of the Carroll family and burial place of Charles Carroll of Carrollton. He was 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. Ziger/Snead Inc. of Baltimore is the architect for the church and has been asked to use the stained glass windows as the starting point for its design.

John Murphy, a Baltimore attorney who is leading the effort to block removal of the windows, contends that they shouldn't be taken out because they represent a significant period in the history of the cathedral and the archdiocese - the tenure of Archbishop Michael Curley. Murphy argues that the architects should attempt to save and celebrate many layers of the building's history, not attempt to take it back to any one period.

That position is contrary to the view of the historic trust, whose directors believe restoring the cathedral to the appearance intended by Latrobe and Carroll would make it more significant internationally. They say the stained glass windows must be replaced with clear glass if the basilica is to regain its original aesthetic and historical integrity.

Keeping the windows in Baltimore would cause problems for architects of the Howard County church, which has been designed assuming they would be available.

"It was designed from square one based on using the windows - and using them in the same order and with the same intent as in the original church," said Jonathan Lessem, project manager for Ziger/Snead. "They're pretty much the primary focus."

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