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Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The Basilica of the Assumption was built between 1806 and 1821 as the first Roman Catholic Cathedral in the United States. It is considered among the masterpieces of renowned architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe. The celebrated gneiss stone structure has been called the most provocative and influential building of its day due to its neoclassical design that includes a temple-front hexastyle portico, Delorme-inspired dome, Latin cross plan, and bold, clean detailing. Indeed, thanks to Latrobe’s foresight, the Basilica was the first American church to break completely with the English-inspired Wren-Gibbs prototype that dominated religious architecture in this country during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Basilica follows the model established by the Roman Pantheon, the most complete temple-fronted structure of ancient antiquity, for the modern use of classical motifs. It is also among the first to be built in a Latin cross plan. Here, Latrobe successfully married Catholic liturgical traditions with the bold rational geometry of the neoclassical style.
The construction of a cathedral in Baltimore was first envisioned by Father John Carroll, whom the Pope appointed Vicar General of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States and its first American Bishop (later elevated to Archbishop). For this reason, Baltimore is considered the birthplace of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the United States. While Maryland was founded by the Carroll family as a haven for persecuted Catholics, for nearly a century prior to the American Revolution and the adoption of a new constitution, Catholics were not free to worship openly. Bishop Carroll thus intended the Basilica to celebrate their newly regained freedom. Of the two designs that Latrobe presented, Carroll selected the neoclassical over the Gothic design generally associated with the old ecclesiastic architecture of Europe. Modeled after ancient Roman architecture and Republican ideals, the neoclassical design likely seemed to Carroll the appropriate choice for the first cathedral built within the new nation. When built, it laid just beyond the city grid, on the newly created Cathedral Street, an extension of the existing Liberty Street.
Latrobe is generally recognized as the father of the American architectural profession, although he had trained in his native England. Latrobe arrived to the United States in 1795, and like many before and after, brought with him knowledge of the latest architectural fashions from abroad. Few, however, obtained the success and acclaim that was Latrobe’s. As both an architect and engineer, Latrobe possessed unique knowledge and experience that provided competency in every aspect of building design and execution; he also possessed a creativity that was rarely matched. The Basilica of the Assumption is a perfect example of Latrobe’s application of these ideals. It was begun while Latrobe was at the height of his career and consecrated just after his untimely death in 1820.
Among the significant features of the Basilica is an overall design scheme consisting of a complex system of interrelated vaults with the great rotunda and massive Delorme dome at the center of its cruciform plan. Delorme domes were first designed by French architect Philibert Delorme and were supported by narrow structural ribs formed from laminated planks shaped into long, curved support members. The dome extends almost the full width of the building to include the area over the side aisles, as well as the front portion of the nave, creating a robust sense of spaciousness. Smaller saucer-like pendentive domes appear on axis with the central dome to help bring unity to the overall plan. The dome’s construction and vaulted interior spaces beneath it clearly demonstrate Latrobe’s innovative skill at engineering as well as architectural design; no other American church of English origin at that time was completely vaulted in masonry. The vaulting extends to the Basilica’s foundation to support the basement crypts.
Other noteworthy features include the interior Ionic columns around the apse and under the galleries, and the plastered coffered ceiling ornamented with rosettes. The interior spaces are also expressed by the geometries of the exterior form. These include the placement of the dome on an octagonal base at the building’s epicenter and the slight projection of the lateral walls that also serves as the base for the flanking towers, surmounted by belfries and topped with onion domes. Interior geometries are likewise expressed by the stretch of wall that corresponds to the side aisles and the three large arched windows that occupy central positions with respect to the major interior spaces. The windows are placed with large arched recesses, a signature piece of Latrobe’s designs. The massive pedimented hexastyle portico supported by fluted Ionic columns, although a part of the original Latrobe design, was not completed until 1863.
In 1971, the Basilica was designated a National Historic Landmark. It underwent a comprehensive rehabilitation in 2006 under the direction of John G. Waite Associates to incorporate modern systems while also restoring the interior to Latrobe’s original design by removing later changes and additions. This included the removal of stained glass windows, replacing them with Latrobe’s clear glass designs, and the reinstallation of the skylights in the dome.
Fazio, Michael W., and Patrick A. Snadon. The Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
Historic American Buildings Survey, “Roman Catholic Cathedral of Baltimore, Baltimore County, Maryland. Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1958–1959. From Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (HABS No. MD-186).
Hamlin, Talbot. Benjamin Henry Latrobe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955.
Parish, Mrs. Preston, “Old Roman Catholic Cathedral (Basilica of the Assumption),” Baltimore County, Maryland. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1969. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Pierson, William H., Jr. American Buildings and Their Architects: The Colonial and Neoclassical Styles. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1970.
Smith, G.E. Kidder. Sourcebook of American Architecture. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996.
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