Basilica restoration launched for bicentennial in 2006


A non-profit group affiliated with the Basilica of the Assumption will restore the oldest Roman Catholic cathedral in America, preparing the landmark for its bicentennial in the year 2006.

The Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust Inc. kicked off the restoration effort yesterday by sending construction experts up in a cherry picker to inspect the deterioration of the twin onion domes on the west side of the building at Cathedral and Mulberry streets. The trust was formed in 1976 to make sure that Benjamin Henry Latrobe's masterpiece is preserved and protected.

Over the next several months, a team of architects and other restoration specialists will study the cathedral and prepare a strategic plan for a restoration project that could take 10 to 15 years. The cathedral is America's oldest, and the restoration is expected to be one of the most elaborate and costly ever launched for a religious building in this country.

Monsignor Jeremiah Kenney, rector and pastor of the basilica and amember of the trust, said the campaign is being launched because the building needs "a lot of work," especially in upgrading ancient mechanical systems such as the heating.

The cathedral was constructed mainly from 1806 to 1821 and was designated a basilica in 1937.

"Basically, we have a treasure here that is not unlike European cathedrals, and we have to start treating it as such," he said. "There's a need to bring it into the 21st century."

Monsignor Kenney said he knows of no major structural flaws. He said, however, that some members of the trust have been concerned about possible adverse effects from construction work on the nearby Franklin Street garage.

"We're just trying to do everything we possibly can to restore it and breathe new life into it," he said. "Our challenge is to see that it continues to be what it has been, the mother cathedral of the United States, the cradle of the Catholic church in the U.S., and the eternal resting place of the first bishop in the country, John Carroll."

Because it's so steeped in history,"this place could really be the St. Patrick's of Baltimore," said Wayne T. Ruth, a Hunt Valley-based contractor who heads the trust. "That's why we're developing a plan of action. We know the restoration is going to take 10 to 15 years, and we want it to be in shape for its bicentennial."

The architectural firm of Ziger, Hoopes & Snead -- which recently designed the much-praised Episcopal Diocesan Center -- has been selected to head the consulting team along with Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, which will serve as construction manager.

Monsignor Kenney said the first project already has been identified. The Basilica Dome Campaign, as it is called, includes restoring the copper-coated onion domes above the cathedral's twin towers, both of which are no longer watertight; repairing the bells and clock of the south tower, and refinishing the gold crosses atop each dome. The cost of that work is expected to be $150,000 to $180,000.

Architect Jamie Snead said his team also is looking for possible locations within the basilica or on its grounds to create a small museum.

The spelling of C. William Struever has been corrected for the archive database. See microfilm for original story.
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