Baltimore Building of the Week: The Basilica

This week’s featured Baltimore Building of the Week from Dr. John Breihan is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a National Historic Landmark, National Shrine, Marian Shrine, and Co-Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. You can become a fan of this incredible building on Facebook or take a guided tour Monday through Saturday.

Image courtesy Jack Breihan

By far the greatest architectural masterpiece in Baltimore is its long-time Catholic cathedral, now known as the Basilica of the Assumption. Designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe for Archbishop John Carroll, the Basilica was built between 1806 and 1820. The great domed church with its curious cylindrical towers, our Hagia Sophia, long dominated the Baltimore skyline. To mark its bicentennial in 2006, the Basilica underwent a much-needed rehabilitation of its basic systems and a conjectural restoration of the interior to its appearance in 1820. While some welcome the new bright pastels, others miss two centuries’ accretions of church furniture, gold leaf, and stained glass.

Image courtesy Jack Breihan


  1. Rebecca says:

    I don’t understand why you used old pictures of the Basilica for this piece. The top picture has a caption that says 2009, and it was definitely not taken in 2009…it would have to have been taken before the restoration started in 2004! I also don’t understand why BOTH pictures that you used are from before the restoration. I could see wanting to show before and after, but there is no current photo used! Finally, your last line, which clearly hints that you are not in favor of the restoration, eludes that the furniture, gold leaf, and stained glass windows were in the church the whole time, but they weren’t. According to everything I have read, the stained glass windows were installed in the 1940’s and were actually purchased from a catalog. The only part of the windows that were “special” were the small bottom panels in each window that were created for the Archdiocese of Baltimore…and it’s not like the windows were destroyed, they were sent to another church in the Archdiocese that was designed specifically to receive the windows. The furniture and gold leaf were also circa 1940’s. I work downtown and attend Mass at the Basilica regularly and am very familiar with this building, and I closely followed and supported the restoration. It was nice of you to feature the Basilica on your blog, but your backhanded comments did not go unnoticed.

  2. Eli says:

    Thank you for your comment, Rebecca. While I cannot speak to your questions around the rehabilitation, I can explain that all of the photos featured in our Baltimore Building of the Week series are from the collection of slides and photos that Jack Breihan has put together over his years of teaching at Loyola College. We would certainly welcome any contributions of more current photos from the Basilica in our Baltimore Heritage Flickr group.

    • Rebecca says:

      There are a lot of pics on their Facebook page and their website…why didn’t you ask to use at least one of the Basilica as it looks today?

  3. estella chavez says:

    Why did you show a photograph of the Basilica as it was before the renovation? The Basilica is an asset to our city. Your bias is showing. Perhaps you should join the many pilgrims who come from out of town to visit it and see the emotion in the faces of Catholics when they listen to the docents telling the history of the beginnings of Catholicism in the United States.

  4. Jim O'Connor says:

    I find your response to Rebecca amazing. You post an article and say that if people want it done correctly, THEY have to send you the correct information! You seem to take no responsibility for your poor use of photographs and blame the photographer for having taken pictures for many years. Shame on him for not taking only new pictures!

  5. Don Henderson says:

    You make reference in your blog to the Basilica’s 1820 appearance. At the time of its dedication, it was mostly a pastel shell with little in the way of “church furniture, gold leaf, and stained glass.” Each archbishop seemed to have a different idea of how “his” church should look. Accordingly, the color of paint gave way to faux marble, and furnishings came and went (including the cathedra, pulpit, statues and pews. As noted in an earlier comment, the stained glass only appeared during my lifetime, when the gold leaf prominent on the copper dome gave way to its oxodized green. As a result, almost every generation of Baltimore visitors and worshippers experienced a different look to the building. As a tour guide, I have yet to meet a single person who doesn’t like — and even prefer — the restoration to Carroll’s and Latrobe’s “vision.”

  6. Debbie Holly says:

    Hello Eli,
    I am sure by now you have received a variety of comments concerning the use of photos. Having worked with you and hoping to work with you again. It is important to have accurate information communicated on the internet. As a docent for the Basilica, I will be happy to give you a private tour to bring you up to speed … to share it’s history, and some of the influences on the choice of architecture for the “Mother Church” of Catholics in the brand new United States of American and the changes it experienced. The restoration brings it back to the vision of John Carroll, with the skill of architect, B. Henry Latrobe, which was finally completed after both of their deaths. It’s a story worth hearing, which brings understanding.
    I’ll be in touch.

  7. Gina Sebald says:

    What a lost opportunity to feature a real beauty in our city. Visitors to Baltimore come to see the restoration. Why feature old pictures when these visitors come with such enthusiasm to see the building with Latrobe’s grand dome? Again, what a missed opportunity.

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