Windows to church's past

By all accounts, the stained-glass windows at Baltimore's Basilica of the Assumption are unforgettable works of art inside an early American masterpiece - the nation's first Roman Catholic cathedral. But the tranquillity of the biblical and Maryland historical scenes portrayed in the windows belies the tumult raised by the likelihood of their removal.

It is a prospect that dismays some Baltimoreans in preservationist and Catholic circles.


"Each and every pane breathes contentment and holiness," said Denise Whiting, 44, a Hampden cafe owner who was married in the Basilica. "Why would you want to lose that? How could they even think about it?"

A city hearing today before an architectural board will decide the fate of the nine arched stained-glass windows, which were installed in the 1940s. Basilica officials leading a $32 million restoration of the domed neoclassical cathedral say the windows don't fit into their vision of bringing the building back to its appearance 150 years ago.


"This isn't something that's being done lightly, because the windows are beautiful and finely crafted," said Robert J. Lancelotta Jr., 38, the Basilica's historic trust's executive vice president. "We hope to bring the church to national and international prominence with this restoration, because the original symbolism has been lost in memory by over a dozen renovations."

Those who think the Basilica's interior is too dark and gloomy welcome the planned return of skylights and glass window panes - part of the original design. But Basilica officials, who are preparing to take their restoration concept to the city's commission for historical and architectural preservation, anticipate a chorus of protest. The hearing is the final planning hurdle for the Basilica restoration.

Leading the opposition is Baltimore lawyer John C. Murphy, whose father, Frederick Murphy, was the lead architect in the 1940s renovation that installed the stained-glass windows.

Murphy insists he is motivated by more than defending his father's legacy. Instead, he said, it is the principle of not erasing layers of history.

"You can't rewrite history," Murphy said. "This is radical. Don't do a radical experiment on this building. In the process of restoration, they will destroy historic resources."

In 1821, the cathedral's presence on Baltimore's highest hill proclaimed religious freedom in the newly formed republic, Lancelotta said, especially because Catholics fled persecution in England. Dedicated in 1821, the Basilica is considered the finest intact work of the architect of the United States Capitol, Benjamin Henry Latrobe. (The Capitol was badly burned by the British in the War of 1812 and rebuilt.)

The colorful stained-glass panes depict scenes of Christ turning water into wine; the Sermon on the Mount; the first Mass held in Maryland in 1634; the first archbishop of Baltimore, John Carroll; and Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, a Baltimore woman who later became a saint. The plan is to replace the panes with clear glass.

John G. Waite, the lead architect of the restoration, said the transparency of the window glass symbolizes open freedom of worship and creates a striking physical effect.


"It was a utilization of light never seen before," Waite said of the cathedral's original clear windows. "The lighting was almost magical. Certainly, Latrobe never contemplated the use of stained glass in that building."

The design of the dome and the skylights, Waite said, was directly influenced by Thomas Jefferson, with whom Latrobe had worked closely. Latrobe and his client, Carroll, wrote letters back and forth in the early 19th century which later became the basis for documenting the restoration, Waite said.

That architectural pedigree is not enough to convince Murphy of the wisdom of the restoration approach.

"You have to respect the evolution of the building over time," Murphy said in an interview near his one-man law office on North Charles Street. A veteran of preservation lawsuits, Murphy fought to save Memorial Stadium in 2001.

Also slated to be removed and replaced in the cathedral's interior are the dark-green marble floors, wooden pews, some confessionals and the altar rail. The interior will be repainted a light beige, accented by bright pink and green in the dome. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has been following the project and supports the sweeping changes, Basilica officials said.

Sam Schnydman, 63, is a financial planner who converted to Catholicism from Judaism in 1987 and was baptized at the Basilica. From a spiritual standpoint, the former member of the parish council said, the restoration might miss the mark.


"As a Catholic, I'll find it less warm and less nourishing," Schnydman said. "Why interfere? If you change those windows, it will isolate the church from a lot of people in the Catholic community."

Lancelotta said the decision to remove the stained-glass windows posed a problem that was resolved when the Basilica agreed to give the panes to a Catholic church being built in Clarksville in Howard County.

Alice Ann Finnerty, an antiques and tea shop owner who is related to several people married at the Basilica, said she was "galled" at the thought of the cathedral windows being moved out of Baltimore.

The rift between those who want to keep the windows and those who don't runs deep.

Lancelotta isn't hiding his displeasure at Murphy and other objectors. "We have been hurt, and this is not going to help. They are trying to sabotage this thing and have divided the [city] preservation community. This is a great project for Baltimore, based on seven years of homework."

He said the opposition may interfere with the Basilica's national fund-raising effort, which is $7 million short of the $32 million goal. The timetable calls for the restoration to be completed in 2006; the hope is that the restoration project will begin in March.


John Maclay, president of Baltimore Heritage, plans to speak at today's hearing, but as an individual - the organization has not taken a position on the restoration.

"Better to trust in what the long line of history has said it wanted, than to play latter-day God with this treasure," Maclay said yesterday. "Respect the rich history this landmark already displays."

Parishioner Irene Van Zant, a city employee, sees it differently. "As a layperson, I like the original Latrobe design," she said. "It brightens the church up."