Restoring America’s First Cathedral

by John G. Waite, appearing in Volume 41

The Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore celebrated the 200th anniversary of its dedication in 2021. Photo: Author

The Catholic Church had been a persecuted minority only twenty years before. If it were going to be more than that, John Carroll realized when he became America’s first bishop, and if it really was going to grow and become a major force in the new republic, it needed a major architectural symbol. It needed a great cathedral.

The new cathedral to be built in Baltimore needed to be both “American” and “modern,” he believed. It could not be Gothic, which anti-Catholic forces would use against the Church by tying it back to Europe and the Middle Ages and domination by the Vatican. Architecturally literate, the bishop of Baltimore had been educated in Europe, where he became interested in neo-classical architecture, then considered the most fashionable and progressive architecture of the time. He was raised to the episcopacy in 1790 in the chapel of Lulworth Castle in England, and it has been noted that the chapel may have been the inspiration for classical architecture later manifested in the Baltimore Cathedral.

Carroll did much to set the future direction of the Catholic Church in the new republic. He encouraged Catholics to immerse themselves in the larger community and not just Catholic affairs. He believed in ecumenism and the separation of Church and state. His commitment to freedom of religion was one of his major contributions to the formation of the United States.

“The Gothic style has great beauty and spiritual strength, but it speaks to the past,” he said, when first presented with a Gothic design. “Our cathedral should share the perspective of the new American nation. It will speak to the future in the neo-classical style of the national capitol in Washington.”

Latrobe’s Masterpiece

The Baltimore Cathedral—the Basilica of the Assumption—was the first cathedral constructed in the United States and has been long recognized as the masterpiece of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, America’s first important professional architect.

Carroll realized that in order to get the building he wanted, he needed to engage the best architect in the country. After consulting with President Thomas Jefferson, he decided that only Latrobe would suffice. Even though Latrobe was not Catholic, Carroll persuaded him to undertake the design of the cathedral. Throughout their work together, which began in 1806 and ended with Carroll’s death in 1815, the design process was a real partnership between the archbishop and architect.

Latrobe was born in England in 1764 to a Moravian family, and he was descended from a line of Moravian bishops. After studying engineering in Germany, traveling in Italy, and practicing architecture in England, he immigrated to the United States in 1796 and settled in Richmond, Virginia.

There he met Thomas Jefferson. The two found they had much in common and became friends and correspondents. As America’s first professionally trained architect, Jefferson appreciated Latrobe’s design sense and knowledge of building technology and construction materials. In 1803, he appointed him Surveyor of Public Buildings, with the principal responsibility to redesign and complete the United States Capitol.

Jefferson and Latrobe worked closely together. They were in frequent communication regarding architectural design, construction technology, and the use of building materials. Jefferson’s influence on Latrobe, and vice versa, became evident during the archival research for the historic structure report for the cathedral. This was confirmed again when we prepared the historic structure report for the restoration of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. We found that Latrobe early on sent Jefferson a drawing for the design of the Rotunda.

Not only was the architectural design of the cathedral innovative—the only building to rival it in size, scale, and architectural sophistication was the U.S. Capitol—but much of the building technology Latrobe introduced was revolutionary: the use of masonry vaults to support the main floor, the use of reverse arches in the undercroft to support the rotunda pendentives, large clear glass windows to flood the interior with light, and the construction of a large Delorme wood-framed dome with twenty-four skylights in the field of the dome, which were not visible from the floor.

Latrobe died in 1820 in New Orleans from yellow fever. In addition to the Baltimore Cathedral and U.S. Capitol, he designed some of the most prominent and innovative structures built at the time in the United States, including the Virginia State Penitentiary, the Bank of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Waterworks, and the Baltimore Exchange.

South elevation of Latrobe’s first classical design, 1806. Image: Public Domain
Section of Latrobe’s classical design, 1808. Image: Public Domain

A Major Monument

The cathedral is a major monument in American architectural history. It has been described as “North America’s most beautiful church” by architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner and “one of the finest ecclesiastical monuments of Romantic classicism” by his American peer Henry Russell Hitchcock. Its significance as a symbol of freedom of religion has been articulated by Cardinal William Keeler who said, “this building stands as the symbol of religious freedom and tolerance to all people and nations.”

The cathedral was built in stages because of the scarcity of funds and it went through eight major design revisions. The construction was fraught with many problems. Latrobe resigned twice because of contractor’s and/or clerk-of-the-works’ incompetence and malfeasance.

The foundations were constructed incorrectly because Latrobe’s drawings were read upside down. Then the design was changed so that wood framing was substituted for masonry vaults to support the main floor. However, Carroll persuaded Latrobe to continue and the improper construction was corrected.

Although not fully completed, the cathedral was dedicated in 1821. There was a great ecumenical celebration, which included the ministers of the major Protestant churches of the city and prominent political leaders. There was wide approval of the building and it was remarked that the cathedral was a major source of pride for the entire community. The unusual quality of the lighting within the church, because of the dome skylights, was noted as having almost a magical quality.

Construction dragged out over the next forty years. Major features constructed after the dedication included the entrance portico, two bell towers, and interior finishes. Latrobe’s son lived across the street from the cathedral and made certain that when funding was available the work was carried out in accordance with his father’s intent.

After the Civil War, a number of modifications compromised the character and integrity of the building, given in the timeline below. All of these changes combined to make the interior very dark, not at all the character that Latrobe and Carroll worked so hard to create. Fortunately, the basic building survived.

The original appearance of the interior, engraving by William Goodacre, 1820s. Image: Public Domain
Appearance of the interior in the late 1990s just prior to restoration. Photo: Author

From 1821 to 1980

Here is a timeline of the changes from the dedication of the cathedral in 1821 to Cardinal Keeler’s restoration project begun in 2001:

1821: At the time of the dedication, the cathedral reached its final form except for the construction of the entrance portico, the two towers, and the apse.

1831 and 1837: The two bell towers at the west end, which are slightly different in design, were built in 1831 and 1837 to Latrobe’s design.

1841: By 1841, the entrance portico was begun and the original shallow-pitched roof over the nave had been replaced by the current, more steeply-pitched roof.

1860s and following: The original pulpit, which was attached to the pier, was removed in the 1860s and replaced several times, the last time being in the 1940s. The interior was remodeled no less than thirteen times to reflect Catholic parish church décor of the time. Latrobe’s original light color scheme was replaced by progressively darker décor. The floor was changed from Latrobe’s original intention of marble to wood, tile, and other stones.

1861-1864: The entrance portico and steps were constructed to Latrobe’s original design.

1890: The major change at this time was the removal of the original apse and construction of an enlarged apse designed by Ephraim F. Baldwin as Latrobe originally intended which provided enough space to address the functional requirements. Latrobe had originally advocated for a larger apse, but a shortage of funding precluded its construction.

1890-1980: All of the furnishings were designed by Latrobe to be an integral part of the building’s design. Over the years, most of the original furniture was replaced.

Early twentieth century: The original cathedra (bishop’s throne) and the baldachin, dating from the 1820s, were replaced.

1940s: Four major changes were made in this decade. The clear glass windows in the nave were replaced with new stained glass. A heavy stone altar rail replaced Latrobe’s original wood railing. The cathedra and its baldachin of the 1840s were replaced with others.

Finally, the original twenty-four skylights were removed during the 1940s, and the openings filled in and roofed over. The original skylights were located in the field of the wood-framed Delorme dome, but were not visible from the floor. The light was directed through a central oculus in the inner masonry dome producing a quality of light that was described as magical. Delorme domes, invented in the sixteenth century, utilized laminated wood ribs. Favored by Thomas Jefferson, Delorme domes were used by him at Monticello and the Rotunda at UVA.

1980: Many alterations were made to the interior during the period of the 1940s to 1980s. These changes resulted in the building that existed just prior to the restoration.

A new co-cathedral for Baltimore was constructed in the north suburbs after World War II as a result of residents leaving the inner city. The Cathedral of Mary Our Queen was begun in 1954 and consecrated in 1959. A quarter of a century later there was a revival of downtown Baltimore as a residential, business, and recreational center that became a national model for historic urban areas. It resulted in a revitalization of both commercial districts and residential neighborhoods.

The interior of the basilica after the restoration. Photo: Author

Cardinal Keeler’s Restoration

The fortunes of the cathedral changed in 1989 when William H. Keeler became the fourteenth archbishop of Baltimore. Like John Carroll, Archbishop Keeler was architecturally and culturally literate and also had a far-sighted vision of what the Church needed to do in order to lead and prosper in the modern world. (He became a cardinal in 1994.)

He saw the cathedral as “the most precious place of worship in the United States” and the “world’s architectural symbol of religious freedom” and thought it should return to its place of prominence as the religious center of the archdiocese.

However, years of neglect had left the building in poor condition. The HVAC, plumbing, and electrical systems were out-of-date and in some cases, not working and dangerous. The roof and skylights were leaking. The building was not accessible by those with disabilities.

After addressing the many social and educational problems of the diocese, Cardinal Keeler turned his attention to the cathedral by first establishing the Basilica Historic Trust to help raise funds and oversee its restoration. Like the original design for the building, the plan for its restoration evolved over a number of years. Led first by Wayne Ruth and later Robert Minutoli and Michael Ruch, the Trust oversaw what was eventually a thirty-two-million-dollar project with funding from public and private sources from across the country.

One of the first steps in the restoration was the selection of an architect, one who would restore Carroll’s and Latrobe’s original vision and intent. Cardinal Keeler directed that there be a national search. “This the most precious place of worship in the U.S.,” he said, “so I had to get the very best architect to do the job.”

The next step was the preparation of a historic structure report in 1998–2000. The report consisted  of a detailed and extensive history of the initial construction and various renovation campaigns; a description section identifying the original and modern features of the building; a problem of repair section noting all of the building components requiring remedial action; and a series of recommendations to restore Latrobe’s and Carroll’s original spirit and intent while making the building energy efficient, sustainable from a functional standpoint, code compliant, and accessible.

This was the first time that the building’s history was thoroughly researched and documented. The historic structure report and related non-destructive investigations, as well as building conservation and restoration mock-ups, were partially funded by a series of grants from the Getty Grant Program.

Research and Program

The historic structure report research and physical investigation took two years to complete and answered many questions, allowing for an accurate and effective restoration so that the previous problems of repair would not re-occur.

After the historic structure report was completed, a program for the restoration was adopted that utilized an experienced construction manager with a qualified restoration subcontractor. Henry H. Lewis Construction Co. of Owings Mills, Maryland, was selected, with Ellington C. Churchill as project manager. The Lewis firm had previously worked with my firm, John G. Waite Associates, Architects, on the restoration of Homewood House, a Carroll family home and now a museum; Evergreen House museum and library, both in Baltimore; and Greenwood Plantation in Thomasville, Georgia.

The ensuing restoration took another two years. It included work on three major components:

Exterior: Conserve and restore the masonry; replace the historic wood shingles and copper roofs on the main roof, towers, and dome; replace the dome skylights; replace the original clear glass windows; and restore the cast iron fence.

Main level of the interior: Replace the HVAC, electrical and plumbing systems; conserve and restore the historic wall and ceiling finishes including the historic color scheme; install a marble floor; replicate the original lighting fixtures; restore the historic west gallery and columns; reproduce missing historic furniture including pews, cathedra, pulpit, and altar; conserve and restore the original altar; and make the entire main floor, undercroft, and galleries accessible.

Undercroft: Excavate the floor and underpin walls to create a new chapel as originally intended; create a new museum; connect with new underground restrooms, storage, and maintenance areas; construct new stairways to the main level of the apse.

The twenty-four skylights in the dome were uncovered and new windows were installed. The original copper and wood shingle dome sheathing was replicated.. Photo: Author

The Restoration

The restoration involved study of the building and the feasibility of returning it to Carroll’s and Latrobe’s original design. As much as possible was done to restore the original design.

Skylights: Using funding from the Getty Grant Program, the dome was investigated and evidence of the original skylights was revealed. A prototype installation of four skylights was installed to test their detailing and installation. All twenty-four skylights were installed and the original copper and wood shingle dome sheathing was replicated.

Dome: The dome was restored to its original condition with copper-covered steps and lower section. Wood shingles were used on the upper section. The twenty-four skylights are set in wood frames located between the ribs of the Delorme construction—an unusual, but important, example of early nineteenth-century building technology.

Windows: The window openings were investigated using funding from the Getty Grant Program to determine what evidence survived of the original clear glass window sash. Replicas of two panels of original windows were fabricated and installed.

Based on this test, all of the later stained glass was replaced with replicas of the original sash, thus completely transforming the character of the space. This, along with the installation of the skylights and the restoration of the original color scheme, resulted in the recreation of the original design.

The west gallery was returned to its original appearance with an Ionic column screen. Photo: Author

West gallery: At the west end of the cathedral, Latrobe designed a screen of four Ionic columns and a gallery for use by free African American parishioners. After the Civil War, the columns and gallery were removed under the direction of architect John R. Niernsee and replaced by two larger galleries. Also, a window was cut into the front wall of the cathedral. As part of the restoration, the screen of columns and original gallery were reconstructed to reestablish the integrity of the original design of Latrobe and Carroll.

Furniture, Altar, and Undercroft

Every other part of the cathedral was considered as well.

The original 1820s cathedra was reinstalled in its original location and a new baldachin was fabricated based on historic images. Photo: Author

Religious furniture: The religious furniture was important in defining the character of the cathedral. An important part of the restoration was to conserve the surviving original furniture and accurately reproduce those furnishings that did not survive. Written descriptions, historic drawings, engravings and early photographs were used to guide the reproduction of the missing furnishings.

As part of the interior restoration, Latrobe’s original paint scheme was replicated using paint seriation analysis, written descriptions, historic illustrations, and a series of physical probes to determine the sequence of construction. The historic Argand lighting fixtures were replicated and installed in their original locations. The historic white marble flooring, as intended by Latrobe, was also replicated, replacing a mid-twentieth-century tile and stone floor.

Pulpit: The original pulpit and canopy were replicated.

Cathedra and baldachin: The original cathedra was reinstalled in its historic location with a new baldachin over it constructed to replicate the original.

Altar rail: The heavy stone altar rail dating from the 1940s was replaced with a replica of Latrobe’s original wood railing.

Altar: The original marble altar dates from the early 1820s. It was modified several times before it was moved to the east end of the 1889 apse. In the 1930s and 1940s it was modified again. As part of the restoration, the original altar was conserved and restored. A new replica altar was constructed and mounted on rails in the west end of the sanctuary, where it can be moved based on liturgical requirements.

Undercroft chapel: Because of unauthorized modifications to the undercroft by the original contractor and clerk-of-the-works, who were working directly for the cathedral, it had not been possible to construct the chapel that was intended by Carroll and Latrobe. As a result, the undercroft was barely more than a crawlspace and tunnel for ducts and piping and later, electrical conduits, for the first 200 years of its existence. During the restoration, sections of the foundations were underpinned and the earth and debris from the original excavation were removed to provide adequate headroom.

This allowed for the construction of a museum of the cathedral and a chapel in the undercroft. At long last the cathedral received the chapel that was originally conceived by Carroll and Latrobe.

The dove of the Holy Spirit crowns the oculus of the central dome. Photo:

A Radical Renovation

After more than two and a half years of construction, the completion of the restoration was celebrated by two weeks of services and events, culminating in a Mass with 250 bishops of the United States on November 12, 2006. Cardinal Keeler received several standing ovations which were “rousing and thorough.”

The restored cathedral was the subject of national radio and television coverage, as well as coverage from major newspapers and magazines from across the country.

“This is the most important place of worship in the United States,” Cardinal Keeler explained. “We should treat it with the respect it deserves. The only master architect in the infant days of the United States designed it a certain way, so I thought it was only right that we go back and restore it to what this real genius had in mind.”

The restoration also received extensive coverage in the professional press. Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, called it “a remarkable accomplishment.” Architecture magazine wrote that “the restoration of Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s original design boldly peels away layers of religious ornament and iconography—including stained glass windows—added since its dedication in 1821. Calling it ‘radical’ may be an understatement.”

In 2009, the American Institute of Architects presented John G. Waite Associates, Architects with a National Institute Honor Award for Architecture. The award stated: “Restoration of the Basilica of the Assumption (also known as the Baltimore Cathedral), a major architectural landmark and masterpiece of the Federal style, removes a century and a half of obscuring alterations to bring back Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s concept of luminosity and spatial configuration. The now fully functioning cathedral again serves the people of Baltimore while reclaiming one of America’s most brilliant architectural designs by its first professional architect; one that greatly influenced the development of the country’s architecture.”