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America's first cathedral reopens for its 200th anniversary

BALTIMORE, Md.—America's oldest cathedral sits on one of Baltimore's highest points, its shiny copper dome and towers as revolutionary as they were when it was designed 200 years ago.

Now restored to the original vision of John Carroll, the nation's first Roman Catholic bishop, and Benjamin Latrobe, the father of American architecture, the Baltimore Basilica is both a religious symbol and an architectural gem.

The building—the United States' first cathedral—reopens its doors Saturday for its 200th anniversary. For a week, Baltimore will celebrate the transformation of a dark, gloomy, mysterious building into a light-infused, pastel-colored monument to God that was intended to be as American as the new republic.

Three cannon volleys will greet the cathedral's reopening—two for the basilica's first 200 years and the third for its next 100—from nearby Fort McHenry, the site that inspired the writing of the "Star-Spangled Banner."

"All of us involved in this restoration project have good reason to be elated," Cardinal William Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore, said at a news media preview. "The basilica is an American treasure. It's a wonderful symbol of religious freedom."

The two-year, $34 million restoration of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as the cathedral is formally known, in Baltimore's Mount Vernon cultural district is part of the revival of the neighborhood, the city and the national interest in preserving America's historic buildings.

Carroll, a leader in Catholic education who founded Georgetown University in Washington, wanted a powerful image for the church and the Catholic minority struggling for a place in the New World. Baltimore in 1810 was the new nation's second largest city, with 46,555 residents, behind New York, and a focal point for Catholics who founded Maryland as a Catholic colony.

Latrobe, a celebrated architect whom President Thomas Jefferson appointed to design the U.S. Capitol, offered his services for free.

Carroll rejected Latrobe's first designs. Latrobe then presented a blueprint that Carroll embraced: a neoclassic style inspired by ancient Greece and Rome but presenting a new sensibility that was simple and elegant at the same time.

"He wanted an architectural symbol that could be considered American," Keeler said. The columned entrance, twin bell towers and enormous dome created a place of worship that combined the old and new. Latrobe, influenced by Jefferson's love of skylights, incorporated 24 of them into the dome.

The construction lasted from 1806 to 1821.

All the details that Latrobe and Carroll worked on to give the cathedral its bright, airy feel, however, were altered later by changing times and fashions.

The skylights were covered at the end of World War II, prompted by concerns of German aerial attacks. The pastel shades on the wall were repainted battleship gray, and the pink and blue flowers, or rosettes, on the dome were painted over in blue. The dark green marble floor helped darken the effect. And the row of 16-foot-tall Palladian windows that give the nave and sanctuary so much natural light were covered in stained glass.

"This building became quite a bit darker, rather Gothisized," said Steve Reilly, the project architect from John G. Waite Associates, a New York firm that oversaw the restoration.

Reilly was responsible for a great architectural discovery during the restoration: four murals in the interior dome that pay tribute to the authors of the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—and had been hidden for more than 140 years.

"We knew there were panels or should have been panels" in those spaces, recalled Reilly, who'd done much of the historical research. "I was tapping and I heard a hollow sound." After putting a pinhole in the plaster and shining his flashlight through, he saw the unmistakable blue hues of the frescos.

The four paintings, part of the original Latrobe plan, weren't in place until the 1860s; by 1865 they'd been covered with wood panels, the victims of changing tastes.

To the delight of the project leaders, the colors of the rosettes that dot the interior dome, which already had been restored, coordinated exactly with the colors of the panels of the four Gospel writers.

"They were in extraordinary condition," said Michael Ruck, the chair of the Basilica Historic Trust.

The cathedral's interior walls are now pale yellow, contrasting subtly with the pink lotus-like flowers and soft blue of the interior dome. The windows are clear glass instead of stained glass, and the main altar has been reconfigured to open the sanctuary and allow congregants to walk through and reach the side altars. The pews are white with mahogany details instead of all dark wood.

At the back of the nave, the restorers, following Latrobe's plan, placed columns that mirror the exterior columns. And they discovered another part of America's past: the original 40-foot balcony in the back where slaves and freed slaves could worship, the African-Americans kept apart from the white congregation.

The organ, part of the original design, has been rebuilt and upgraded several times in the church's history and now can be rolled around the organ loft.

The restoration also revamped the cathedral's systems, including air conditioning, heating and lighting, and includes new exterior lighting as part of Baltimore's outdoor-illumination program.

The church has a special connection with Rome: Pope Pius XI designated it a basilica in 1937, an honor given to historically significant churches. The Baltimore Basilica may display the papal bell, papal umbrella and the pontiff's seal. Among the basilica's many visitors over the years are the late Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa.

The original construction was Carroll's mission and Latrobe's masterpiece. The restoration of the basilica to their vision has been Cardinal Keeler's crowning achievement.

For more information about the basilica and a schedule of events, go to

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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