In the heart of downtown Baltimore sat a faded, yet priceless, piece of American history. After decades of neglect, “America's First Cathedral,” the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was in need of a major restoration and renovation effort. The architectural firm John G. Waite Associates, Albany and New York City, designed the $32 million project, which took 30 months to complete.

More than two centuries ago, Baltimore's central role in American history included having the first Catholic diocese. The Basilica “became known as a symbol of religious freedom,” said Mark Potter, executive director of the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust Inc., who was the overseer of the meticulous restoration.

Prominent English architect Benjamin Latrobe chose a traditional cruciform church with a domed crossing for the original design. An intricate system of arches leads into the central domed space, which is anchored by four supporting piers resting on inverted arches in the undercroft. Instead of the traditional wood and plaster ceilings of the time, Latrobe chose fireproof masonry vaulting, along with substantial stone outer walls.

The first stone was laid in 1806, but major interruptions (trade embargos and the War of 1812) delayed the Basilica's opening until 1821. Now, two centuries after that first stone went in, the Basilica restoration is complete. The meticulous process included undoing some of the less-than-faithful repairs the shrine underwent every other decade or so, from fireproofing to covering up the trademark skylights. The massive effort added a new chapel and museum in the undercroft, which is the heart of the masonry portion of the restoration.

One “good” mistake from the original construction was running out of money, which left the floor of the undercroft nearly 2-ft higher than intended. That design gave the current team plenty of leeway to finally add Latrobe's planned chapel, plus exhibition space to draw in the public and an area for the mechanical systems.

Brick work

With the original drawings nowhere to be found, the project involved a good bit of sleuthing, which Baltimore Masonry Foreman Danny Moll of BAC Local 1 enjoyed. “You have to think back to its intent,” he said. Moll, whose restoration expertise pre-qualified the firm for the high profile project, credits the closed environment of the undercroft for keeping the materials dry over the years. “Unlike many large historic structures, nothing's moved,” said Moll. “It still looks like the day they put it up.”

One of the biggest surprises was the discovery of 5-ft-thick sections of granite used to frame the lower level doorways. The sections had to be carefully sliced away to make the entrances more accessible to the public, with the slices saved for other areas.

Bricks were carefully piled up to reuse as much of the original ones as possible, with pressed brick making up the difference. Carroll Ensor, project manager for Baltimore Masonry, estimated that roughly 10% of the restoration is original brick. For the mortar, the team used a special recipe that dries to the same color as the original: one part portland cement, two parts lime, and nine parts sand.