Bringing the Basilica's Origins to Light

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 5, 2006


In its infancy, the United States had only one Catholic bishop, and even that was too many for some people -- including a few prominent Catholics, who worried about being too visible in the often anti-Catholic young republic. The country's first bishop, John Carroll, presided over a see that stretched from Canada to Florida, and west deep into the primeval forests. His cathedral, begun in 1806, stood in Baltimore, which was for generations the center of Catholic America.

Two centuries after the cornerstone was laid, the Baltimore Basilica reopened with great ceremony this weekend. From the outside, it has always presented a strange but compelling face to the world, a mix of classical columns, onion-capped towers, an imposing dome and high arched windows such as one might find in a New England meeting house. Walk around it, and you won't be surprised to learn that the architect, Benjamin Latrobe, was one of the most important influences on the early development of the U.S. Capitol. But for years the interior of the basilica -- a papal honor bestowed on the cathedral in 1937 -- was radically different from what Latrobe had imagined.

Mostly, it was a matter of light. Over the years, hidden windows at the top of the dome were removed and the side windows replaced with stained glass. The interior was remodeled by successive bishops, generally in favor of darkness and clutter. An interior space that once had the bright, airy feel of a piece of Wedgwood china became dark and Gothic, a reflection of the tastes of new waves of Catholic immigrants.

Most of that has changed now. Despite the reservations of some parishioners who preferred the basilica -- especially the stained glass -- to remain as they have always known it, restoration has taken the church back to what conservationists and architects believe was its original state. Or rather, back to what they believe was Latrobe's vision, because the building, like many large churches, took decades to finish and a single "original" state is very difficult to determine.

On a sunny day light now flows in through the open "oculus" at the top of the dome. Sun also gleams through the tall side windows -- the stained glass has been given to another church. The basic openness of the plan, the sense that the building is designed to capture large volumes of daylight in its stone embrace, is breathtaking. From the outside, and now the inside, too, it's clear that this cathedral was meant to connect American Catholics, through architecture, to the classical ideals embodied in the buildings of ancient Greece and Rome. Indeed, it doesn't seem like a Catholic church at all -- if by that you imagine candles, and paintings of agony, and the dark patina of history accumulated on legions of saints standing sentinel in dim niches.

Latrobe's Vision

The Baltimore Cathedral was always intended to be a different sort of Catholic church. Latrobe presented Bishop Carroll with two plans, one a Gothic design, another (cheaper) model based on the classical elements that were being deployed in the new public architecture of Washington. The bishop went with a classical model that would, when finished, be fronted by a Greek portico of Ionic columns. The church would stand on a hill in a newly built district of rapidly expanding Baltimore.

From the foundation up, Latrobe had to fight for his plan. Letters exchanged between the architect and bishop suggest that either Latrobe was very meticulous and very cranky, or the project managers in Baltimore were daft and sometimes duplicitous. Perhaps both. Again and again, Latrobe threatened to quit, citing small economies made by the builders that threatened the structural or design integrity of the building. Wander through the newly excavated undercroft (it was until recently an impassable and litter-filled space), and Mark Potter, executive director of the nonprofit trust formed to undertake the restoration, points to upside-down arches, an effort by Latrobe to shore up the supports for the vast dome after workers made changes in his original plan.

That dome, which dominates and defines the central space, was a double construction, a shallow masonry dome on the inside, with a wooden exterior dome built over it. Years later, in the 1830s, two towers, with turnip-shaped domes and spires, were added to flank the church, followed by an elegant portico, built in the 1860s. Even before it all came together -- an apse was added in the 1890s -- and Latrobe's design was essentially completed, the architectural ideas that first motivated him in what is considered his masterwork were already in danger of being forgotten.

By the time the United States won its independence, Catholics in Maryland had been through a century and a half of turmoil. Educated, upper-crusty Catholics fleeing religious oppression in England established the new foothold of Maryland in 1634, and while they very much intended to form a Catholic community, they did so under the cover of a policy of broad tolerance for all (Christian) faiths. Although Spain maintained a hand-in-glove relationship between the church and the state in its New World possessions, no English Catholic could expect such a thing to be permitted in England's colonies.

This tolerance, born of necessity, received an impressive statement in the 1649 Act of Toleration, which guaranteed that no one in Maryland would be "troubled, Molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof." So long as they believed in Jesus and didn't blaspheme or call people of other faiths bad names. Still, it was a remarkable accomplishment. And one that wouldn't last very long.

Five years later the Act was undone, and Catholics were officially excluded (though they stayed and many thrived economically) in the very colony they founded. As Maryland politics came to reflect the toxic religious dynamics of the mother country, the status of Catholics was often parlous.

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