Amid overhaul, Basilica to close for nearly two years

Church officials hope move will smooth renovations

October 01, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

One of Baltimore's best known religious landmarks, the Basilica of the Assumption, will close to the public for nearly two years starting next month so workers can complete a $32 million restoration and modernization.

Leaders of the Basilica's parish, in conjunction with the Archdiocese of Baltimore, have notified parishioners that the building at Cathedral and Mulberry streets will close after Nov. 21 services and that it likely will not reopen until late summer 2006.

Church officials say they considered keeping the building open during the work but decided it would be more prudent "from both a safety and cost perspective" to close it temporarily and hold services elsewhere.

"If we ask our contractors to break down and clean up each weekend, it would lengthen the completion date of the project and add enormous cost," Monsignor James V. Hobbs, the rector, wrote in a letter to parishioners.

"It's the most efficient way to do it," said Mark J. Potter, executive director of the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust, the nonprofit organization overseeing the restoration. "It's a massive project. The quicker we can all get back into the restored Basilica, the better."

The Basilica parish has about 400 parishioners. Several said they're sorry to see the Basilica close but understand the trust's position.

"It's only temporary," said parishioner Sean Keller. "While I'm saddened that we won't be able to worship there for a couple of years, I'm excited about what it's going to be like when the work is finished. I think it's going to be well worth it, considering what the final outcome will be."

While the Basilica is closed, services will be held at St. Alphonsus Church, several blocks away at 114 W. Saratoga St.

"It's a necessary evil," said Marie Boursiquot, another parishioner. "This is a national treasure. We're eager to get it back open so all Americans can appreciate its significance, both as a house of worship and a part of American history."

The building, whose formal name is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is known as the first Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States and a masterwork of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the architect who designed the U.S. Capitol.

Construction began this spring on the project, which is intended to restore the building's interior and exterior and improve its mechanical and structural condition in time to mark the 200th anniversary of the year its original construction began, 1806. The building was substantially complete by 1821.

As designed by John G. Waite Associates of Albany, N.Y., and Beyer Blinder Belle of New York, the renovation plan ranges from substantial changes to the building's infrastructure, such as replacing the heating and plumbing systems, to stripping away ornamental details that weren't part of Latrobe's vision.

Besides improving the building for worshipers, the work is expected to make the Basilica more of a draw for architecture and history buffs to visit.

One of the most noticeable changes will be the replacement of stained glass windows that were installed in the 1940s with clear glass windows identical to those designed by Latrobe. Part of the undercroft has been excavated to make room for a new chapel.

Some of the Basilica's contents will be put in storage while construction is under way, and some will undergo restoration themselves.

The grounds of the Basilica have been turned into a construction site, and contractors have dug a large hole on the north side of the building to accommodate new mechanical systems, restrooms and a storage area.

The historic trust has privately raised $23 million of the $32 million needed to complete the work and is seeking the rest through a nationwide fund drive. According to Potter, none of the money is coming from the operating funds of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

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