The Restoration of the Light

Baltimore's basilica, a neoclassical masterpiece designed by Benjamin Latrobe, gets an illuminating makeover.


The basilica, facing Cathedral Street in Baltimore

Credit: (John W. Waite Associates, Architects)

An architect in early-19th-century America couldn't turn his back on a construction site for long—especially an architect who was bad with money. Benjamin Henry Latrobe learned this galling lesson while supervising work on the cathedral that he designed for the Roman Catholics of Baltimore, begun in 1806.

The builders at one point read Latrobe's plans upside down.  Piers and walls ended up too short; foundation stones that wouldn't be visible were hand-hammered, inexplicably and expensively. Unneeded marble was delivered for the granite-walled shell. The central dome, thanks to malformed underlying piers, turned out eight inches too wide (it was eventually corrected).

Although Latrobe visited the site periodically, the builders were incompetent, hostile, possibly drunk, and corrupt. Boxfuls of Latrobe's emotional letters to and from the Catholic bishop (and later archbishop), John Carroll, survive. The architect tried to be polite—"I beg you will not call me obstinate"—while confiding exhaustedly to colleagues that he considered the design "dead, and damned past redemption." Latrobe threatened to quit, publish the correspondence with Carroll and the Archdiocese of Baltimore trustees, and have his name taken off the commission. As he gradually went broke, he suffered crushing bouts of anxiety, melancholy, and dysentery.

Carroll pleaded with him "not to abandon us in the present state of our building." Latrobe—who had offered his services pro bono—caved. "I will return to the plough," he promised, then weeks later disgustedly announced yet another "final adieu" but returned again for still more professional punishment. Before the trustees could raise enough money to finish his schemes, Latrobe died of yellow fever in New Orleans.

For more of this article, look for the January/February 2007 issue on newsstands or e-mail us to purchase a copy. 

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