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Set-up imperfect for Pope John Paul II prayer garden

The Baltimore Sun

For religious leaders, it's a spiritual oasis near the heart of the city.

For nature lovers, it's a much-needed green space, open to all.

For those who value historic architecture, it symbolizes the failure of the preservation process in Baltimore.

Even though it covers no more ground than a tennis court, it's hard to think of another public space with the ability to trigger so many conflicting reactions as the Pope John Paul II Prayer Garden that was dedicated last week.

The $1.5 million garden was built as a complement to the recently restored Basilica of the Assumption, which occupies the same block in Baltimore's Cathedral Hill district. Begun in 1806, it's the first Roman Catholic cathedral in the U.S., architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe's masterpiece and possibly the most significant work of architecture in Baltimore.

Along with spending $32 million to restore and modernize the cathedral, the stewards of the property, a nonprofit group called the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust, had a vision for improving the grounds around the cathedral to make the entire block a more attractive destination and enrich the experience for visitors. Its leaders envisioned building an orientation center that would tell the story of the first cathedral and Maryland's role in promoting religious freedom. They also wanted to remove buildings along Franklin Street that blocked views of the restored basilica and create a stronger visual connection between Latrobe's landmark and nearby institutions to the north.

The prayer garden grew out of that thinking about improving the grounds, but doesn't represent an execution of the entire vision. It's impressive, in one sense, because it shows that the Historic Trust and Archdiocese of Baltimore have the clout to complete any project they want. It's also frustrating to see at this stage because it underscores how much still needs to be done.

The larger vision called for enhancing the restored basilica by razing two structures that blocked views of it from Charles or Franklin streets. The structures were the Rochambeau, a seven-story Renaissance Revival apartment house designed by Edward Glidden in the early 1900s, and the Franklin Street garage, a seven level structure that opened in the 1980s. If those buildings were gone, planners reasoned, they could be replaced with a shorter orientation center that could supplement the basilica while making it more visible from the north. It could also give the basilica a presence on Charles Street and establish a visual link to Maximilian Godefroy's First Unitarian Church on Franklin Street.

Through a dummy corporation, the Trust acquired the Rochambeau. But it learned that it couldn't buy the city-owned garage until the municipal bonds are paid off sometime after 2012. Unhappy about the prospect of operating an apartment building until then, the Trust sought city permission to raze the Rochambeau, even though it was occupied. Its leaders proposed replacing it with a prayer garden dedicated to Pope John Paul II, who visited Baltimore in 1995 - a nobler venture than a parking lot. They also argued that razing the Rochambeau would help improve sightlines to the basilica from certain vantage points.

Preservationists howled, saying the Glidden building was exactly the sort of historic structure that should be retained and upgraded to draw residents to the city. But the building was not protected by local landmark designation, and city officials approved the demolition.

Besides eliminating housing, removing the Rochambeau had consequences that weren't consistent with the larger vision for the basilica. It exposed the east end of the adjacent garage, making it more prominent than ever. At the same time, it did little to open up views to the basilica and gave the Trust relatively little land to honor the pope.This is the imperfect urban design situation that awaited the designers of the prayer garden, the landscape architecture firm of Mahan Rykiel Associates, with Scott Rykiel as principal in charge and Stephen Kelly, Brian Reetz, Jake Golding and Mike Rogers as design team members.The park they designed is enclosed by a metal and cast-stone fence that enables the Trust to close it after dark. Elements include a central elliptical lawn, benches, flowers, trees, an inscription wall and a 7-foot-high bronze statue of Pope John Paul II, created by 77-year-old Maryland native Joseph Sheppard.

According to Rykiel, the garden was designed to offer a journey that people can take to learn about the pope and his trip to Maryland. Visitors enter through a gate near the corner of Charles and Franklin streets and walk along a curving brick pathway that frames the lawn, with benches along the way.

The path leads slightly uphill to the granite inscription wall, which bears a statement from the pope about Maryland's role in religious history. If they follow the path all the way around, visitors will end up at Sheppard's statue, which depicts the pope as he looked when he arrived at BWI Marshall Airport in 1995, hugging two children who came to greet him. The statue holds the space well and portrays the pontiff as he is fondly remembered: gentle, embracing, beneficent. Still to come is a large mesh scrim that will hang from the side of the adjacent garage. Designed by RTKL Associates, this Fiberglas screen will contain supergraphic images of flowers, reflecting the pope's love of nature. It's also intended to hide the garage wall.

While the garden design works on many levels, it also contains a few contradictions that show the difficulty of trying to do so much with a limited site.

Because Sheppard's statue was placed at the north end of the property and faces south, for example, it will receive ample morning light to illuminate the pope's countenance. But the placement also means the statue is seen against the backdrop of the neighboring Unitarian church, as if the garden is a forecourt for it rather than the basilica. And although the garden is intended to serve both as a place for quiet contemplation and group gatherings, it can't necessarily do both at the same time. When a large, boisterous group fills the space, as school children did last week, there is little opportunity for solitude. It's also a very noisy site, with sounds of traffic and construction from Charles and Franklin streets. Some of these concerns will take care of themselves, as plants fill in and trees mature to block more of the Unitarian church and help muffle traffic noise. One aspect of the project that won't improve by itself is the lack of a clear connection between the prayer garden and basilica. From inside the fence, it's hard to see much of the cathedral other than the cross at the top, one of the onion domes that frame the front entrance, and portions of the back side. What visitors see mostly is the utilitarian garage.

This is why the prayer garden is difficult to try to experience at this point. One can appreciate Sheppard's statue, the flowers and the inscriptions. One can see how this small garden begins to fulfill some of the Trust's larger goals. But it's not all there yet.

The prayer garden ought to be an integral part of the basilica experience, yet it's still largely cut off from the basilica, visually and physically. It suffers from being surrounded by noisy traffic on two sides, and hemmed in by a hulking garage that dwarfs the human figure and blocks the sun for much of the day.

The danger of this project is that its completion may lead observers to think the mission is accomplished, when that is not the case. The prayer garden is commendable in many ways, but its full potential will never be realized until more of the master plan for the surrounding area is carried out. Now that the Rochambeau is gone, the Franklin Street garage needs to follow.

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