Basilica restored to former glory

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BALTIMORE (AP) – As worshippers and tourists walk into the newly restored Basilica of the Assumption, organizers of the project expect them to be overwhelmed by one aspect of the Roman Catholic cathedral – the light.

Bringing the 200-year-old building back to the purity of its original design by Benjamin Henry Latrobe has been a major goal of the restoration. Research has shown that Latrobe, who also designed the U.S. Capitol, didn’t want a dark interior, and much of the $32-million restoration has been aimed at brightening up the church.

“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.”

Heavy, stained-glass windows installed in the 1940s are gone, as is the battleship-gray paint job. In their place are translucent windows and cream-colored walls. The result is airy and alive, calling attention to the elegance and innovation of Latrobe’s architecture.

The basilica sits on a hill just north of downtown – the highest point in the city when the land was acquired in 1803 by John Carroll, the nation’s first Catholic bishop.

These days, it’s frequently overlooked by tourists charmed by the Inner Harbor. Historic trust officials hope that’ll change when the basilica reopens on Nov. 4.

“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.

While other parts of what became the United States had Catholic settlers before English Catholics came to Maryland in the 17th century, Baltimore eventually was named the nation’s first diocese.

The cornerstone for what was then called the Baltimore Cathedral was laid in 1806, and the building completed in 1821. More than a century later, Pope Pius XI designated it a basilica, an honor given to churches with antiquity, dignity and 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.

Latrobe began working on the Capitol under President Jefferson, the start of a lengthy collaboration between the two giants of early American architecture.

The two were in frequent communication and made suggestions to each other. 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 … 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, which had been covered up and abandoned in the 1940s because of leaks and other problems, has been restored.

“The idea, basically, is for there to be a glow hovering high over the head of the spectator, and it’s way beyond where you can reach, and you don’t fully understand where it’s coming from,” Brownell said. “It creates a very solemn effect.”

The restoration also will emphasize the basilica’s importance to U.S. Catholic history. For the first time, people will be able to walk around the altar and descend new staircases leading to the crypt beneath it, which holds the remains of Carroll along with Cardinal James Gibbons, Archbishop Martin Spalding and Archbishop Michael Curley.

Meanwhile, the cathedral’s neoclassical design links it to the Capitol, making its symbolic value all the more potent to American Catholics, whose faith was suppressed under British rule, said Michael Ruck, chairman of the board of the Basilica Historic Trust.

“Just as the Capitol in Washington, D.C., stands as the symbol of the political freedom that we have,” Ruck said, “this building stands as a symbol of the religious freedom that everyone had been promised under our Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”



On the Net:

The Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore: http://www.baltimorebasilica.org

AP-ES-04-19-06 1145EDT

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