On Easter, Baltimore basilica is born again

Earthquake-damaged Basilica of the Assumption revived after months of repairs

  • The repaired dome in the Basilica, after the earthquake damage it sustained in 2011, is shown ready for Easter and the grand reopening.
The repaired dome in the Basilica, after the earthquake damage… (Gene Sweeney Jr. / Baltimore…)
March 30, 2013|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

On Aug, 24, 2011, the earthquake that jolted the East Coast from Georgia to Quebec rattled through the bricks, plaster and paint of one of Baltimore's architectural jewels, the Basilica of the Assumption, sending nearly 1,000 linear feet of cracks through its ceilings and walls.

On Sunday, as Christians worldwide commemorate the resurrection of Christ on Easter, the 207-year-old cathedral, too, will enjoy a rebirth.

Construction workers have put the finishing touches on a seven-month, $3 million restoration job, and Sunday morning's Mass will mark the formal reopening.

"Isn't it beautiful? Easter is a celebration of the Resurrection and new life, and the basilica is getting a new life of its own," said Monsignor Arthur F. Valenzano, the cathedral's rector. "The reopening is an invitation to the wider community to come on back in."

For the first time since last August, the building is free of the scaffolding that surrounded its walls on the outside and blocked all views of its ceiling art within. Gone, too, are paint cans, dropcloths and the intermittent whine of workers' machinery.

"It has certainly had a different look and feel," said Dave Janesh of Howard County. A visitor who attended weekly Mass in the adapted space through the course of the restoration, he got an early look at the repaired cathedral on Holy Thursday.

The cathedral — the first built in the United States — has a rich history that mirrors Baltimore's central role in laying the foundation of American Catholicism.

Designed by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, with input from a friend of his named Thomas Jefferson, the basilica came to life between 1806 and 1821.

Archbishop John Carroll laid the building's cornerstone. It would be added to the National Register of Historic Places (1969) and named a National Historic Landmark (1972). It remains co-cathedral of the Baltimore Holy See.

But as its 200th birthday approached, it was in need of a makeover. From April 2004 through November 2006, the archdiocese oversaw a $34 million restoration that included major infrastructure improvements, a new roof and a white marble floor to match the original design.

The new and improved basilica, Valenzano says, had an almost unshakable feel as it proceeded to host Masses, weddings and baptisms — not to mention more than 100,000 visitors a year.

Then the earthquake hit.

"You expect an old building to require ongoing maintenance, but an earthquake is just not on your radar screen," Valenzano said of the 5.8-magnitude quake that had its epicenter near Richmond, Va.

Those who were there say the whole building shook. Valenzano, who was driving on Interstate 95 at the time, arrived a bit later and entered the building to see something bizarre: "The pews were covered in plaster dust. It looked as though it had snowed."

When the monsignor looked up, he saw what appeared to be hairline cracks in the ceilings, the highest of which rises 80 feet above the cathedral floor. For a more detailed analysis, the archdiocese brought in engineering teams from Lewis Contractors, the Owings Mills firm that had done the previous restoration.

Some of the cracks, it turned out, were nearly half an inch wide and dozens of feet long. The biggest started at the base of the main dome and climbed 40 feet in a "Y" pattern.

Once Jeff Childs, the project manager for Lewis, and his team got up into the church's labyrinth of attics, they realized that this crack and others had penetrated the two to five feet of solid brick with which Latrobe had encased the domes, and had reached the open air outside.

"We faced some very unique problems," Childs said this week as workers hauled away some final pieces of debris. "We had to develop some unique solutions."

After months of structural analysis and budgetary planning, the company set to work Aug. 1.

The first problem, Childs says, was establishing access. His crews tailored a massive scaffolding system to the space.

In order to maximize floor space below, they built the support towers farther apart than usual. The first scaffold floor blocked all views of the ceiling. They'd eventually add two more tiers as they worked at ever greater heights.

From there, the project had two goals: to carry out repairs and to make sure as much of the cathedral could remain in operation as possible, as often as possible. Acting under Valenzano's guidance, Fandango Productions, an event planning firm, was hired to hang white fabric that shrouded the scaffolding.

For seven months, the basilica's main floor became a hard-hat zone during the week. Cleanup teams spent Friday afternoons tidying up the place, and the basilica would celebrate Masses and host other events on weekends, including 10 weddings.

Janesh said that while it seemed odd not to be able to look up and see the ceiling, he and his wife, Jackie, still enjoyed attending Mass each week.

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