by Stephen F. Reilly, John G. Waite Associates Architects
The first step in the restoration of the Baltimore Basilica began in 1998 when John G. Waite Associates, Architects was engaged by the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust to prepare a historic structure report for the building and its grounds. The result was a complete written and graphic documentation of the building and a thorough examination of its fabric. For the first time, all the available historical documentation regarding the original construction and subsequent modifications of the building was examined in a comprehensive manner. The result of the report was a detailed plan for the restoration of the first great metropolitan cathedral in the United States.
The report documented and evaluated every aspect of the building from the apex of the dome to the base of the foundation piers. The relationships between the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Bishop John Carroll, and President Thomas Jefferson in the design and construction of the cathedral were researched and described.
The first major campaign of construction started with the laying of the cornerstone in July 1806 and continued through 1812. In 1817 construction resumed, and after delays in the initial construction efforts, the main dome was completed in 1821. As is the case with many major religious buildings, it took years for the most significant architectural and liturgical details of the building to be completed. It wasn’t until 1838 that the north and south towers were finished, and it was only after the Civil War that the essence of Latrobe’s and Carroll’s design was realized, when Latrobe’s son John, who lived across Mulberry Street from the building, oversaw the completion of the portico at the main entrance to the church. Additions to the building continued after the construction of the portico, including the creation of a formal sacristy to the north of the sanctuary in 1879, as well as the expansion of the sanctuary to the east in 1890.
After the completion of the historic structure report in 2000, schematic and design development documents for the restoration of the cathedral were developed by John G. Waite Associates, Architects in close consultation with the Basilica Historic Trust and with construction manager Henry H. Lewis Contractors, developing concepts and solutions to address the restoration of the building while accommodating the requirements of a functioning cathedral in the twenty-first century. During the design process, the architects worked with engineering consultants and restoration contractors to develop the best details and means of construction for the work.
Construction documents were completed in 2004, and the 30 month construction schedule began with selective removals and precise excavations necessary for the installation of new work. In addition to the intricate restoration of the historic fabric by restoration specialists from around the United States, the existing, outdated utility systems were completely replaced with modern, innovative, and energy efficient heating, ventilating, and air conditioning equipment. New fire protection, electrical, lighting and sound systems were also provided. The installation of a mechanical vault, completely buried below grade outside the building at the north side of the site, provided much-needed rest rooms and storage areas, and allowed for the relocation of mechanical equipment previously scattered throughout the building. By locating this equipment in the vault potential for fire was drastically reduced, and the need for sprinklers in the sanctuary and nave was eliminated.
The project included the complete restoration of the exterior and interior of the building back to Latrobe’s and Carroll’s original design and intent. Portions of the original roof were encapsulated and the original, low-profile, appearance was replicated. Some of the most dramatic restoration elements are the reintroduction of the historic, translucent glass windows in the nave and the twenty-four skylights in the main dome. The spectacular original lighting effects are completed with the replication of the original lighting fixtures and the reintroduction of Latrobe’s original paint scheme.
Another important feature is the creation of a chapel in the undercroft to fulfill the original intention of Latrobe and Carroll, which had been thwarted almost two centuries ago by errors made by the builders in constructing the foundation.
The Basilica of the Assumption is a landmark of international significance because of its architectural design and role in the history of American religion. Its restoration is one of the most extensive and significant carried out on a religious building in the country, befitting the importance of America’s first Cathedral.
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