- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006

BALTIMORE — Worshippers and tourists might be impressed when they step inside the nation’s oldest Catholic cathedral following its $32 million restoration, but one aspect may overwhelm them: the light.

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary will reopen Nov. 4, the nonprofit agency in charge of the restoration announced last week.

The reopening concludes on-schedule a project intended to mark the cathedral’s 200th anniversary by returning it to the purity of the original design of 19th-century architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

Latrobe — who also designed the U.S. Capitol — didn’t want a dark interior, research has shown. So, the heavy stained-glass windows, installed in the 1940s, are gone, as is the paint known as “battleship gray.”

In their place are translucent windows and a seductive cream color on the walls.

The result is airy and alive, calling attention to the elegance and innovation of Latrobe’s architecture.

“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 Historic Trust. “But certainly this is the more attractive look for the building, from all accounts.”

Construction crews last week performed last-minute tasks such as installing air-conditioning vents in the floor, beneath where the new pews will be. But the major work is largely complete.

The basilica, which sits on a hill in the Mount Vernon neighborhood just north of downtown, is frequently overlooked by tourists beguiled by the charms of the Inner Harbor and Fells Point.

It was the highest point in the city when the land was acquired in 1803 by John Carroll, the nation’s first Catholic bishop. The historic trust hopes the restoration will call attention to the building’s historical and architectural significance.

The reopening will include a week of festivities, including a ceremony and open house Nov. 4. Other events will include a concert, tours, an interreligious service and the reconsecration of the altar. The festivities will close with a procession of the country’s Catholic bishops and a Mass on Nov. 12. Pope Benedict XVI was invited but will not attend.

Baltimore was the nation’s only Catholic diocese when the cornerstone for what was then called the Baltimore Cathedral was laid in 1806. It was completed in 1821.

In 1937, Pope Pius XI designated it a basilica, an honor given to churches with antiquity, dignity, 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 Thomas Jefferson, the start of a lengthy collaboration between the two giants of early American architecture. The basilica and Jefferson’s masterpiece, the Rotunda at the University of Virginia, have noticeably similar styles.

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.

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