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Project: Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Baltimore, MD

Architect: John G. Waite Associates, Architects, PLLC, Albany, NY; John G. Waite, FAIA, senior principal

General Contractor: Henry H. Lewis Contractors, LLC, Owings Mills, MD




Restoration & Renovation

John G. Waite Associates, Architects, PLLC

From Night to Day

By Hadiya Strasberg

The "Father of American Architecture," Benjamin Henry Latrobe, is widely known for his work on the United States Capitol. Though it was not entirely his design, from 1803 to 1817 he served as Surveyor of Public Buildings of the United States, designing the interiors and overseeing construction of the iconic building. Simultaneously, Latrobe had an equally noteworthy project in Baltimore, to design the first Catholic Cathedral in the U.S. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also known as the Baltimore Cathedral, was built from 1806 to 1821.

This time, Latrobe was the principal architect and the majority of his intentions were realized before his untimely death in 1820. Those elements that weren't recognized and those that have been modified since were corrected when, from 2004-6, John G. Waite Associates, Architects, of Albany, NY, restored the cathedral.

The firm first began preparing an historic structures report in 1998 to determine the extent of the restoration work necessary to renew the 35,000-sq.ft. Neoclassical building. The report – the first time a comprehensive history of the construction of the building had been carried out – indicated that multiple alterations had been carried out over the past 150 years. Immediately after the Civil War, the west balcony was removed; in the 1850s, the low-pitched roof was replaced with a steeper gable roof.

Between 1869 and 1962, the interior was redecorated more than a dozen times. "In an effort to conform to other Catholic churches of the times, the cathedral was repeatedly modified until it had a dark and gloomy appearance," says John Waite, senior principal of John G. Waite Associates. "The original skylights in the dome were removed; stained glass replaced the original clear glass of the nave windows; and the furnishings, finishes and lighting were replaced several times over."

John G. Waite Associates returned the building to its original radiant grandeur. Latrobe himself had initially designed a Gothic Revival cathedral, but Archbishop John Carroll persuaded him to pursue a Neoclassical style, which he viewed as more modern. "Carroll realized that a Gothic building would be used against the Church by anti-Catholic forces," says Waite. "It would be associated with Europe and the Dark Ages. Instead, he believed a distinct, modern style, uniquely American, should be used. We thought that it was important to restore the cathedral to reflect this concept."

The openings for the 24 skylights in the dome were uncovered and Alleghany Restoration & Builders, Inc., of Morgantown, WV, fabricated new sash. "Thomas Jefferson proposed the use of skylights in the dome, which is what he had done at the House of Representatives Chamber in the U.S. Capitol," says Waite. "Latrobe was originally skeptical of the idea, because skylights can leak and cause glare. He was proven to be correct – leaking and glare problems affected the Capitol skylights. However, ten years later at the cathedral, Latrobe realized that in order to create a revolutionary new lighting scheme, he needed skylights in the dome. His solution, which we restored, was to construct skylights in the wooden dome and then build an inner masonry dome with an oculus that created an almost magical lighting effect. The inner dome was covered with sheet metal to collect any water that leaked through the skylights."

Each of the 1940s stained-glass windows in the nave consisted of three panels – an Old Testament scene, a New Testament scene, and a scene depicting the history of the church in Maryland. The stained-glass windows were moved to a new suburban church, and clear glass was installed in their place. "The effect was like night and day," says Waite. "The reintroduction of clear glass, along with the skylights, allowed so much light back into the space that it allowed Latrobe's building to re-emerge."

Adding to this bright appearance are the restored interior finishes and furnishings. John G. Waite Associates re-introduced Latrobe's original paint scheme of a light stone color, highlighted with pastels. Light colored marble floors replaced the 1940s dark green marble flooring in the main space and the portico. From old engravings and photographs, the firm was able to re-create the early-19th-century lighting and furniture, including the pulpit, pews, canopy over the archbishop's chair, and confessionals.

Other mid-20th-century embellishments were also removed. The Stations of the Cross sculptures were replaced with the original 1821 painting, which had been given to the cathedral by the King of France. The original white marble altar was another element that was restored; it had been reconfigured and rebuilt several times. "It was fortunate that the original pieces had been saved," says Waite. "The altar had been greatly modified, but enough elements had survived to allow for the altar to be restored to its original appearance."

During an inspection and sounding of the plaster walls of the dome pendentives, hollow areas were detected. Probes revealed four murals that depict images symbolizing the four apostles. "Murals were shown in one of Latrobe's cross-section drawings," says Waite, "but there was no evidence of them in the building, and they were discovered only by accident." The four murals were completely intact, but required conservation work, which was carried out by New York, NY-based EverGreene Architectural Arts.

One major feature of the cathedral that had been absent for almost 150 years was the west balcony. "The balcony's removal, as a result of Civil War politics, was a desecration of the original design and an affront to the freed blacks who were invited to worship there," says Waite. "There was no question that the balcony, with its four supporting columns, should be restored, both for architectural and philosophical reasons."

The project required John G. Waite Associates to address major exterior restoration issues as well. Masonry cleaning and re-pointing was necessary, as was the replication of the original cedar-shingled roof. "Latrobe had designed a series of low-pitched roofs that were set back from the wall parapets so that they would not be visible from the ground," says Waite. "They were replaced by a high, steeply pitched roof in the mid-19th century."

During the initial investigation, John G. Waite Associates found sections of the original wood shingle roof complete with its lead flashing intact over the transepts. Using these remnants and the one surviving working drawing, the firm was able to re-create the original roof system. "We removed the newer roofs and framing and replaced them with a replica of the original roof system," says Waite. "In the process, we lowered the parapets to their original height."

Waite continues, "We were surprised and pleased to find the original sections of wood shingle roofing, but it was confirmed in the original drawings. William Allen of the Architect of the Capitol's office confirmed that Latrobe also used wood shingles on the Capitol, but because it was burned in 1814, there is no trace of it."

In many ways, the most technically challenging part of the restoration was the expansion of the undercroft. It was Archbishop Carroll's and Latrobe's intention to have a chapel in the underground space, but due to a misreading of his drawings by the contractor, the foundation ended up being too shallow, resulting in an undercroft that was too low to be occupied.

To remedy this problem, John G. Waite Associates underpinned the building and extended the foundations so that space could be excavated for a chapel and a museum. "We used non-destructive investigation techniques, including underground radar to find the depth of each pier so the building could be underpinned," says Waite. "This was a key component of the restoration, because Latrobe twice resigned because of the contractor's mistakes. If it were that important to him, it became as crucial to us to provide a chapel." The undercroft is constructed in brick with a vaulted ceiling.

The HVAC machinery that had been located in the undercroft and attic before the restoration was removed and a new underground concrete mechanical vault was constructed to house up-to-date mechanical equipment. The vault, built below grade in the north corner of the site, houses equipment for the HVAC, electrical, and plumbing systems. By taking the mechanical equipment out of the cathedral, the risk of fire and damage from mechanical malfunctions within the building was greatly reduced.

Sustainability was another factor in the upgrading of the mechanical system. "The HVAC system of the 1950s was ineffective, particularly the air conditioning," says Waite, "so we replaced it with a high-volume, low-velocity air system, which incorporates floor grilles beneath the pews. Only the occupied space immediately 10 feet above the floor is conditioned; a stacking effect is maintained below the dome and vaulting, which is assisted by the masonry mass of the building." Energy bills are 30 percent less because of these upgrades and the use of clear glass to provide daylight in the nave.

The $32-million restoration of the Baltimore Basilica was completed in November 2006. "We were pleased to be able to restore Latrobe's original intent, so that once again the building is a powerful architectural statement that fulfills its role as a cathedral effectively," says Waite. It was a major architectural symbol for the city and the nation when it was first built and remains so two centuries later.



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