Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764–1820) architect of the Baltimore Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

The Baltimore Basilica, built from 1806-1821, was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Latrobe is known as the first professionally trained architect in the United States, and was Thomas Jefferson’s chosen architect of the U.S. Capital Building. Photograph by versluis 2013.

A watercolor showing the architectural elevation and cross-section indicating the interior details. The bell towers are are not the same as was actually built. This piece is in the Baltimore Basilica archives, photograph by versluis 2013. 

The wonderful details of the “coffered” dome and skylights. Latrobe’s chandelier design is an exact reproduction. Photograph taken with available light by versluis 2013.

Interior view showing the pews, organ loft, and side windows, which apparently were suggested to Latrobe by Thomas Jefferson. The fresco shown above is one of four designed by Latrobe honoring the four gospel writers of the New Testament. Photograph taken with available light by versluis 2013.

View of the masonry vaults that support the huge weight of the dome. Latrobe’s mathematics and engineering ingenuity seems very modern. Photograph taken with available light by versluis 2013.

For the design of the Baltimore Basilica, built from 1806-1821, Latrobe worked with Renaissance-style engineering ingenuity to produce a remarkable building. The Basilica is of the neoclassical typology, which was au courant at the turn of the 18th century in Western Europe, particularly in France. However, Latrobe’s brand of neoclassicism creates a striking edifice that freely and soberly translates the spirit of ancient Greek architectural principles and proportions, which results in a distinctively American architecture. The spare interior balances elegantly with the wonderful details of coffered dome and skylights. The combination of formal simplicity and structural complexity is harmonized to the service of Roman Catholic liturgy and symbolic of God’s grace. With a minimal amount of ornament (decoration meant monarchical decadence to Latrobe) the monochromatic yellow color scheme helps accentuate the effect of a worship space that is filled with natural light (the light of inner heaven) entering through the dome and large, clear glass side windows.

To give further insight into this building, The Catholic Review published an article by Suzanne Molino Singleton to commemorate a major restoration of the Basilica completed in 2006.

Singleton’s essay quotes Jeffery Cohen, architectural historian from Bryn Mawr College, who writes, “The basilica’s architectural significance is less a matter of such single features, and more a matter of monumental yet simplified geometry that vividly brought this more severe phase of neoclassicism to the heart of an American city. ” (1)

Singleton continues by saying, “Mr. Cohen explains that Latrobe had worked in this vein on a smaller scale in Philadelphia, and more in internal spaces at the U.S. Capitol, “but in Baltimore he had more scope and scale, and it challenged him to explore more complex possibilities of architectural iconography and lighting.” (2)

Because of its hilltop building site, the Basilica, at the time it was constructed, would stand out for all to see as a symbol and beacon for religious freedom in the new democratic republic. Today the Basilica is surrounded by the city buildings of downtown Baltimore and has become integral in its urban environment. 

  1. Singleton, Suzanne Molino. “An Architectural Masterpiece.” The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Ed. Daniel L. Medinger. Baltimore: The Catholic Review of The Catholic Foundation, 26 Oct. 2006: B29-30. Print. 
  2. Ibid. B30.

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