Renewal in the birthplace of American Catholicism

Those restoring Baltimore's basilica see tourism potential in the historic church


April 24, 2005|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

When and if Pope Benedict XVI decides to visit the United States, the Archdiocese of Baltimore hopes to be the first to greet him.

In fact, representatives say, it would only be fitting if Baltimore were the first U.S. city to be visited by the new pope.

Baltimore is, after all, the site of the first Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States - the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, considered the mother church of Roman Catholicism in this country.

Construction began in 1806, which means the cathedral will mark the 200th anniversary of the cornerstone-laying next year. That's also when the building is scheduled to reopen after a $32 million restoration, a project that received strong support from Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

The local group guiding the work, the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust, whose president is Cardinal William Keeler, intends to issue a formal invitation to the pope to visit the restored cathedral, and perhaps even preside over its rededication, according to executive director Mark Potter.

"What a perfect first visit it would be for the new pope to visit the cradle of Roman Catholicism in the United States on his first trip" as pope, Potter says.

Even before John Paul II died and Germany's Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was chosen to lead the church, the historic trust had made remarkable progress in repairing and upgrading the basilica in time for a scheduled reopening in early November, 2006.

Construction work began on April 12, 2004, and the church has been closed to the public since late November, so that interior renovation could move ahead.

As designed by John G. Waite Associates and Beyer Blinder Belle, the project involves "returning" the building to the way it was envisioned by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who died before construction was substantially complete in 1821.

Workers have replaced 24 skylights in the dome that were removed in the 1940s. They're substituting clear glass windows for stained glass ones in the nave, in keeping with Latrobe's design; installing a new white marble floor, and peeling away layers of additions completed over the years.

Eighty percent of the construction activity entails extensive improvements to the building's infrastructure, including new mechanical systems and installation of an elevator and wheelchair-accessible public restrooms.

Wide-ranging project

Because the basilica has been closed, it's been impossible for passers-by to see the progress inside. But during a recent tour by Potter and Nolan McCoy, director of facilities for the Archdiocese of Baltimore and "owner's representative" for the basilica restoration, it was clear that practically every square inch of the building is being transformed.

The pews have been taken out and conveyed to four different parishes; they will be replaced by new ones inspired by Latrobe's design. Paintings and statues have been either restored or targeted for conservation.

The undercroft has been partially excavated and underpinned to create space for a lower-level chapel - a Latrobe idea that was never realized. Part of the non-original apse has been cut away to provide room for a stairway leading to the undercroft.

On the north side of the cathedral, an underground room has been created to house mechanical equipment, and old ductwork and other systems have been taken out of the stair towers and other areas that were never designed for them.

The roof is being rebuilt to follow the profile Latrobe specified. It needed to be replaced to prevent leaks, McCoy explained, which provided the opportunity to take it back to its original shape. As part of the reconstruction, the existing roof was raised approximately five feet, and a new one is being built just beneath it. The old roof will be dismantled when the new one is complete.

The historic trust wants the site to become more of a destination for visitors - America's version of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome or the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Its master plan calls for construction somewhere on the block of a full-fledged "pilgrimage center" and museum to tell visitors about Roman Catholicism in America and Baltimore's role in it. Another addition within the church will be a bust of John Paul II, a work by sculptor Aharon Bezalel, donated by the Center for Religious and Public Understanding in 2001.

Potter says he and other members of the historic trust are convinced that many people will want to visit the same cathedral that drew John Paul II and other dignitaries, including Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.

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