Basilica's history wins out over purity of design

Critical Eye

October 16, 2005|By EDWARD GUNTS | EDWARD GUNTS,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

THE IDEA WAS TO PEEL AWAY LAYERS of history, to strip off non-original details and get back to the essence of the building envisioned by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

Going back in time, architecturally, was the overriding concept behind the $32 million restoration and modernization of Baltimore's Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was built starting in 1806 and dedicated in 1821. It was the reason the 1940s-era stained-glass windows were removed. It was the impetus for re-creating 24 skylights in the dome -- to "restore the light" in the cathedral as Latrobe meant for it to be seen.

But what happens if restorers discover works of art or other artifacts that are so significant and so well-preserved that it would be a shame to peel them away?

Architect Stephen Reilly faced that situation last summer, when he unearthed four 140-year-old paintings hidden in recessed panels beneath the basilica's dome.

Reilly is an architect with John G. Waite Associates, the New York architectural firm that is guiding the restoration work for the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust. Work is scheduled for completion by November 2006.

The uncovered paintings are allegorical depictions of the Gospel evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Created with distemper water-based paint and measuring 15 feet by 8 feet, they depict Matthew as a human, Mark, a winged lion, Luke, a bull, and John, an eagle.

Reilly and other members of the restoration team have determined that the paintings date from 1865 and were covered over in the 1870s, as part of a later renovation.

That timeline poses something of a dilemma for 21st-century restoration experts aiming to take the interior back to its early 1800s appearance.

From the start of the restoration project, some observers have lamented that the architects would want to take the building back to the way it looked at a certain point in time, as if everything that happened later was less significant.

"Historic preservation respects the evolution of a building," says John Murphy, a Baltimore attorney who has questioned architect John Waite's approach.

But Waite and his colleagues argue that Latrobe, who also designed the U.S. Capitol, was America's first great architect and that the cathedral was his masterwork. They say that more people will visit the cathedral if it's restored to the way Latrobe envisioned it.

If the restoration architects are right about the 1865 date of the paintings they uncovered, that means the images did not exist when the building was dedicated in 1821. It is doubtful that Latrobe had any knowledge of them, since he died in 1820.

So why should these paintings be saved when other elements, such as the stained-glass windows, have been taken out?

Reilly points out that the images were painted on recessed panels that were part of the original building, as shown in Latrobe's drawings. They may have been blank when the building was dedicated, or they may have had earlier surface paintings that were covered by the ones painted in 1865. Either way, Reilly said, Latrobe designed them to be settings for works of art.

Additional arguments for keeping the paintings are that they are in extremely good condition, and that their colors echo the coloring on rosettes and other building features that are even older.

Flexibility necessary

A final factor in the decision to keep the paintings in place is that Cardinal William Keeler, leader of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, wanted them to stay.

Baltimore's basilica has contained an interpretation of the four evangelists, in one form or another, for 140 years, starting with these paintings.

"The cardinal felt very strongly that the four evangelists should be represented in the restoration of the basilica," said Nolan McCoy, director of facilities for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. "When these paintings were discovered, he felt they were significant enough to satisfy this requirement."

The paintings won't be the only features in the building that don't go back to 1821, of course. The modernization work is adding new restrooms, mechanical equipment and an elevator that links all public levels.

The decision to keep the paintings points out the difficulty of adopting a hard and fast design approach that calls for taking the appearance of any building back to a given point in time, especially when that building is as steeped in history as Baltimore's basilica is.

From a preservation standpoint, it's reassuring to know the restoration process is flexible enough that discoveries such as the four paintings can be incorporated into the final design.

Because it is being restored in accordance with Latrobe's vision, Baltimore's basilica will be a powerful testament to the architect's genius. But it will offer an even richer experience for visitors, and perhaps be more accessible, because not all of the successive layers of history have been peeled away.

ed.gunts@baltsun.com

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