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Two Centuries of History

Project: Basilica of the Assumption, Baltimore, MD

Architects: John G. Waite Associates, Architects PLLC, Albany, NY; John G. Waite, FAIA, Senior Principal; Michael Curcio, Project Manager; Stephen F. Reilly, AIA, Project Architect; Douglas Bucher, Interior Restoration

Contractor: Henry H. Lewis Contractors LLC, Owings Mills, MD; Ellington E. Churchill, JR., Project Manager

By Martha McDonald

After a storied history, the 200-year-old historic Baltimore Basilica is getting a fresh start. The Neoclassical building, noted for its grand dome, two onion domes and large portico, was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect of the U.S. Capitol. Construction began in 1806 and the building was opened in 1821 at an original cost of $225,000. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as it is officially called, is now starting its third century looking much as it did in its early days, thanks to a $32-million, two-and-a-half-year restoration led by John G. Waite Associates, Architects (JGWA), of Albany, NY, and New York City.

The effort was actually launched in 1976 with the creation of The Basilica Historic Trust, according to executive director Mark J. Potter. "Our mission is to restore, preserve and maintain the basilica," he says. "When Cardinal Keeler arrived in 1989, he realized the importance of the building and began plans to restore it." The historic structure report was conducted by John G. Waite Associates in 2000 and fundraising began in the same year. Constr-uction began in 2004 and was completed in November 2006, when the basilica was officially rededicated. Potter adds that much of the restoration was privately funded. Potter stresses the importance of the building, both architecturally and for the Catholic Church in the U.S. "It was the first Roman Catholic cathedral built in the United States following the ratification of the Constitution, which contained the First Amendment guaranteeing religious freedom," he says. "Previous to the constitution, it was illegal in Maryland to practice the Catholic faith in public."

The basilica is also one of the most architecturally significant buildings in this country. "Latrobe submitted two designs – English Gothic and Neoclassical – to John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the U.S. Carroll selected the Neoclassical style because he wanted a forward-looking, 'Amer-ican' design, similar to the U.S. Capitol," Potter notes. "It is considered Latrobe's masterpiece."

Following an extensive national search, JGWA, a firm with a long record in historic preservation, was selected to direct the restoration of the basilica. The firm's project list includes some of the country's most notable buildings, such as Mount Vernon, the Octagon, the Lincoln Memorial, Blair House and the Tweed Courthouse in New York City, as well as several state capitols. "Our work began with the historic structure report in 1998-99," says Jack Waite, FAIA, senior principal, JGWA. "It was the first time anybody had gone through all of the archival records to see how Latrobe actually designed the building. The report indicated that the building was of international significance; it was one of the most important buildings built at that time, either in this country or in Europe. The original design was created with a great deal of assistance from John Carroll and was also influenced by Thomas Jefferson. Catholics had been a persecuted minority until the time of the revolution and Carroll realized that the church needed a significant building if it was going to play a major role in the religious life of the new republic. It was seen not only as a symbol of the Catholic Church, but also as a symbol of religious freedom.

"In spite of 14 redecoration campaigns since the Civil War, a remarkable amount of the original Latrobe building fabric survived. The building construction had followed Latrobe's design intentions until the Civil War and then his vision was lost. We found that the building was so significant that it needed to be restored to Latrobe's original vision. This is a very unusual approach for an American project," he adds. "We didn't restore it to any period of time and we didn't keep the later modifications that did not respect Latrobe's design."

"Henry H. Lewis was involved in the project three to four years before construction began," says Ellington Churchill, project manager. "It's unusual to be at the table with the owner and architects during the planning of the project. It's fortunate because we could do diagnostic work and provide information early on in the process. The enormity of the project was obvious. The building was 200 years old and we realized we were going to be touching every square inch of it be-cause no finish, no piece of equipment was going to go untouched. At the same time, we wanted the new construction to look seamless. That's a challenge."

One of the most challenging as-pects of the restoration was building a new chapel and museum in the undercroft. "Latrobe had actually intended that a small chapel be constructed in the undercroft, but be-cause of mistakes made by the buil-der, it was never built," says Waite. Between 4 and 12 ft. of sand was ex-cavated from different areas in the undercroft and the foundation was underpinned to make room for the small, modern chapel that accommodates about 50 people.

"The first phase was the undercroft modifications and the construction of the new vault," says Churchill. "The basilica is made of a series of arches and vaults and because it's on sand, we had to be sensitive to the conditions. For one thing, the excavation had to be done the way they did it 200 years ago, with shovels. We couldn't bring heavy equipment in because of ventilation problems."

Another example of work done by hand in the undercroft was the creation of a new entrance to the crypt. "Typically we would bring in equipment, but in order not to disturb the crypt, we drilled holes into the stone and then opened the wall by hand," says Churchill. "We learned that the basilica is a great structure and you could see why it lasted 200 years. The workmen have great respect for it."

Updating the mechanical systems of the basilica was also a priority. "This is an historic building of international significance, yet it has to be a working cathedral that functions well in the 21st century," says Waite. "That meant installing new lighting, HVAC, fire protection and plumbing systems." Waite and his team decided to condition space to a point only about 15 ft. above the main floor, the area occupied by people, rather than to condition all of the space up to the domed ceiling, which is approximately 77 ft. above the main floor.

"Rather than dumping huge amounts of air from the ceiling, we conditioned only the space where the people are," says Steve Reilly, AIA, JGWA, project architect. "This results in a substantial reduction in energy required to heat and cool the building, and it's better for the fabric of the building." Calvert Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning of Baltimore was brought in by the contractor, H.H. Lewis, to install the new mechanical system.

Another interesting aspect of the HVAC system is that it doesn't re-quire equipment on the roof. It was decided to put most of the mechan-ical equipment in an underground vault outside the footprint of the building, under the north plaza area. Since the mechanical equipment is outside of the building, the basilica didn't have to be filled with sprinkler heads. "The building will survive for centuries if it is protected from fire – and one of the greatest potentials for fire is with the mechanical equipment," says Waite. "This arrangement also makes it easier for future generations to update the mechanical systems. The building may last for centuries, but the mechanical equipment will have a life expectancy of a generation, at best."

The project also included restoring and reconstructing key original elements such as the great dome, windows, balconies, the sanctuary and interior finishes. EverGreene Painting Studios of New York City was brought in to do extensive plaster restoration and decorative painting, as well as to create two new murals and restore the exterior stucco. "The architects dir-ected that the building be restored to Latrobe's original design, which is very unusual," says Kim Lovejoy, EverGreene vice president for res-toration, who worked with Luis Ang-arita, EverGreene senior restoration project manager, on the basilica.

This concept led to the use of wood lath and lime plaster in the 77-ft.-dia. main dome, which incorpor-ates a 22-ft. oculus and 24 skylights. The skylights had been covered during World War II and removed soon after. EverGreene craftsmen reconstructed the interior of the dome using traditional materials and the 24 skylights were restored, bringing natural light back into the sanctu-ary. The skylights were built and installed by Allegheny Restoration, of Morgantown, WV, which also built the new replica windows for the building.

This type of dome construction – using framing of light wood – was used by Thomas Jefferson for domes over the legislative chambers of the U.S. Capitol and used again here a few years later by Latrobe in the basilica. "Over time, the interior surfaces of the dome had begun to fail," says Reilly. "It had been replaced in the 1940s with metal lath and a hard rigid plaster. It became clear that the wood frame dome is a living, breathing thing that moves a great deal. So we needed a flexible system, like wood lath and lime-based plaster that has the ability to move without breaking apart."

EverGreene project superintendent Bob Corwin adds that one of the reasons for using lime plaster is that it doesn't deteriorate under moisture. "Also, since it was an historic building, they wanted to go with historical materials. You have to follow certain procedures with lime, but it is a really nice material," he adds. "For example, it cures very slowly. Because lime is weaker than other plasters – the wood lath provides the strength – it stresses differently and won't crack. Its weakness is its strength."

EverGreene also completed flat and ornamental plasterwork in the basilica, including cornices, moldings, rosettes and columns. The firm also created profiled moldings and cast ornaments in its shop for installation in the basilica. The decorative painting and mural work done in the Baltimore Basilica was also ex-tensive. Following direction from Douglas Bucher of JGWA, Ever-Greene artists painted trompe l'oeil ceiling panels and coffers in the half dome and pendentives at the apse, stenciling and gilding for the bald-achinos and grisaille ornament and gilding on the main dome.

In addition, Bill Mensching of EverGreene designed and directed the painting of two new period-approp-riate 15-ft. dia. murals: Ascension of Christ and Assumption of Mary, and the firm restored four 19th-century frescoes of the evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, that the architects discovered buried under later plaster surfaces. Dating from 1865, they once again adorn the cathedral.

Warren Construction & Painting of Baltimore was contracted to do the non-decorative painting in the interior as well as the painting on the exterior, such as the new wood windows and the cast-iron portico. The interior walls were restored to their original colors, a palette of straw yellow, pale blue and pink favored by Latrobe.

Another studio that restored paintings in the basilica was Simon Parkes Art Conservation, of New York City. It peeled back almost 120 years of accumulated candle soot and grime to restore the original oil paintings of the Stations of the Cross.

One of the more exciting events that occurred during the restoration was the discovery of the cornerstone of the building by H.H. Lewis workers. It had been placed there by Bishop John Carroll 200 years ago on July 7, 1806.

Another surprise was the discovery of two wooden life-sized an-gel statues that had graced the altar from 1821 to 1927 that were uncovered in the undercroft. They were restored by master woodworker Jim Adajian and gilded by Ed Milburn of Baltimore.

Restoring the skylights and repairing the grand dome to allow natural light into the building was only part of the new lighting system in the basilica. Translucent windows that replicate the original windows from the 1800s also allow more light into the cathedral. These were built and installed by Allegheny Restoration to replace stained glass windows that had been added later.

Waite explains that the original windows had survived in the building until the 1940s, when they were replaced by stained-glass windows made by Conrad Schmitt Studios. These newer windows were removed and given to another church, which was designed to accommodate the stained glass.

In addition to opening the building to natural light, the restoration also included six chandeliers and six lanterns, which replicate the historic fixtures. The new fixtures were fabricated by Excalibur Bronze Sculpture Foundry of Brooklyn, NY.

Other interior work involved restoring the sanctuary to its original appearance and installing white marble flooring. Although the original design called for a light-colored marble floor, it was not possible at the time of the initial construction, so a temporary wood floor was in-stalled for the 1821 opening. It was later followed by a white marble floor and then tile and finally dark marble in the 1940s. The new flooring is a creamy white marble with gold, gray and black veining and is in keeping with Latrobe's original intent. The marble blocks were provided by Polycor Colorado Stone Quarries of Marble, CO, and the pavers were fabricated by Georgia Marble of Kennesaw, GA.

The exterior of the building required extensive stucco repair that was done by EverGreene. "Like many buildings of the same period, the basilica had historic lime stucco that was later covered over with wire lath and Portland cement," says Lovejoy. "We restored the exterior to historic materials using the Keim universal render system, which involved two coats of stucco with a mesh application between them to reinforce the plaster." In addition, run-in-place moldings were restored and ornamental plaster was repaired and hand-sculpted to match existing ornament.

The architectural investigations also led to the discovery of sections of Latrobe's 19th-century wood-shingle roof on the north and south transepts. To conserve the roof for future generations, JGWA designed a new wood roof that encapsulates and replicates the appearance of the original. This work was done by Heidler Roofing Services of York, PA. "Rather than remove and replace or even try to restore the original roof shingles, we decided to encapsulate them and replicate the profile with the new wood roofing," says Reilly.

The major portion of the roof, however, was replaced. In this case, the workmen raised the existing roof about six ft. and suspended it in place while they constructed the new roof underneath. "This gave us space to frame up the new roof and still be fully protected from the elements," says Churchill. "And we would work on the roof in all weather." Once the new roof was complete and weather-tight, the old roof was demolished.

The original covering of wood shingles was also returned to the main dome. It was topped with the historic, gilded gold cross.

Benjamin Latrobe would probably be very happy to see the basilica now. Restored to its original intent and featuring the new chapel in the undercroft, the building is once again a light-filled symbol of religious freedom. "It's not often that one gets to work on a project that has such meaning in the history of Baltimore and the nation," says Churchill. "It is truly an honor. Most of the credit goes to the hard-working men and women who came from all over the country to work on this project." TB

 

 

 
 

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