Illumination of a Historic Basilica

Construction crews work to restore the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore this month. Its two-year, $32 million restoration is coming to a close.
Construction crews work to restore the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore this month. Its two-year, $32 million restoration is coming to a close. (By Don Wright -- Associated Press)
By Ben Nuckols
Associated Press
Saturday, March 18, 2006

Worshipers and tourists might be impressed when they step inside the nation's oldest Catholic cathedral after its $32 million restoration. But one aspect may overwhelm them: the light.

The Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore will reopen Nov. 4, the nonprofit agency in charge of the restoration announced Wednesday. The reopening concludes on schedule a project intended to mark the cathedral's 200th anniversary by returning it to the purity of the original design of 19th-century architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

Latrobe, who also designed the U.S. Capitol, did not want a dark interior, research has shown. So the heavy stained-glass windows, installed in the 1940s, are gone, as is the paint known as "battleship gray." In their place are translucent windows and a seductive cream color on the walls.

The result is airy and alive, calling attention to the elegance and innovation of Latrobe's architecture.

"There are some that like the very dark worship experience, and that's what this was, and we certainly respect that," said Mark Potter, executive director of the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust. "But certainly this is the more attractive look for the building, from all accounts."

Potter spoke as he stood under the cathedral's brilliantly illuminated, 69-foot rotunda during a tour March 10. Construction equipment banged and buzzed in the background as dozens of men performed last-minute tasks, such as installing air-conditioning vents in the floor, beneath where new pews will be. But the major, wall-busting work is largely complete.

The basilica, which sits on a hill in the Mount Vernon neighborhood just north of downtown, is frequently overlooked by tourists beguiled by the charms of the Inner Harbor and Fells Point. It was the highest spot in the city when the land was acquired in 1803 by John Carroll, the nation's first Catholic bishop. The historic trust hopes the restoration will call attention to the building's historical and architectural significance.

Baltimore was the nation's only Catholic diocese when the cornerstone for what was then called the Baltimore Cathedral was laid in 1806. It was completed in 1821. In 1937, Pope Pius XI designated it a basilica, an honor given to churches with antiquity, dignity, historical importance or significance as a place of worship. The cathedral was renamed the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

"It's almost a lost masterpiece of American architecture," said Charles Brownell, an art history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of two volumes on Latrobe's architectural drawings.

Latrobe began working on the Capitol under President Thomas Jefferson, the start of a lengthy collaboration between the two giants of early American architecture. The two were in frequent communication. Echoes of the basilica can be seen in Jefferson's masterpiece, the Rotunda at the University of Virginia, and vice versa, Brownell said.

"These two great domed buildings that both were conceived or perfected in the late 18-teens, one in Charlottesville and one in Baltimore -- I think of them as kind of a salt-and-pepper set," he said. "They have a special relationship to each other."

Jefferson's love for skylights influenced Latrobe, who gave the basilica a unique double-dome design, with a skylight beneath the outer dome that allows diffuse light to pool down into the nave, its source unseen. The skylight had been covered up and abandoned in the 1940s because of leaks and other problems.

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