Basilica window change is approved

Stained glass added in 1940s can go, panel says

Part of $32 million restoration

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

Settling a heated debate over one of Baltimore's most significant buildings, the city's Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation voted last night to allow the removal of all nine stained-glass windows from the Basilica of the Assumption.

The 5-2 decision will allow officials of the nation's oldest Roman Catholic cathedral to replace the colorful windows that have been in place since the 1940s with clear glass panels that were part of the Basilica's original early 19th-century design.

The decision was applauded by Basilica Historic Trust officials, who are undertaking a $32 million restoration of the cathedral, which was designed by the architect of the U.S. Capitol, Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

Robert J. Lancelotta Jr., executive vice president of the nonprofit Basilica Historic Trust, said letting in natural light through the 12-foot-high windows and skylights on the dome was central to Latrobe's intent.

"Light plays a very important role," he told the panel. "The building is meant to be filled with light. Now the interior is dark and dim, even dank."

The decision disappointed some preservationists, including lawyer John C. Murphy, who tried to convince the commission that the windows are part of the cathedral's history.

As Murphy put it, "Historic preservation respects the evolution of a building over time."

The fate of the stained-glass windows has been contested for about a year, and has divided preservationists. The nonprofit group Preservation Maryland recently decided to support the restoration project and the return of the clear windows.

Because of the cathedral's historical significance, the city commission has to approve any changes to the exterior of the building - including replacement of the windows.

Basilica officials said a planned Catholic church in Clarksville in Howard County will incorporate all of the stained-glass windows - on permanent loan from the basilica.

But Murphy and others, including representatives of Baltimore Heritage, said the windows have become such a significant part of the cathedral's history that they should be on display somewhere on the downtown site at Cathedral and Mulberry streets.

"They are beautiful and have acquired significance in their own right," Murphy said. "They have been here one-third the life of the basilica and should stay in Baltimore."

Lancelotta said the national landmark building is "an overarching symbol for Catholics - a neoclassical structure, not a Gothic one," adding that the stained-glass windows better fit the Gothic style.

Lancelotta added that the point of the restoration was to peel away decades of redecoration to create a "touchstone to learn about the past." But he acknowledged that the stained-glass windows are part of a collective memory of a half-century of Catholic rites - baptisms, marriages and funerals - in the basilica and that changes to it should not be considered lightly.

Considered one of the greatest architectural treasures of the nation's early years, the basilica was designed in an American style to symbolize the desire of Catholics to be part of the new republic.

Latrobe designed the dome skylights and windows to let natural light stream into the cathedral interior as a visual statement of freedom of worship, basilica officials and architects have argued.

But Murphy, whose father, Frederick Murphy, was the lead architect who oversaw installation of the stained-glass windows, said that several other historic cathedrals - among them St. Paul's in London, First Unitarian Church in Baltimore and another Latrobe church, St. John's in Washington - all added stained-glass windows long after their original designs were completed.

"Doesn't it tell you something that just about every church has stained-glass windows?" Murphy asked. "They are what the people like. They aid in prayer, in the religious experience."

Murphy said that several key religious figures, such as St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, founder of the Catholic school system in the United States, and Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, founder of the first African-American nunnery in the world, are portrayed in the stained glass.

Basilica officials have said there is no room to keep the stained-glass windows at the site. "There's nowhere to put them," Lancelotta said. "They are nine huge windows."

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