The Baltimore Basilica
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Visiting the US's First CathedralThe Baltimore Basilica was the US's first cathedral. Built from 1806-1821, it was designed to resemble the federal buildings in DC, and it feels completely unlike its gothic European cousins. The nave is bright and airy. The dome’s etchings may be reminiscent of the Pantheon, but a new coat of paint gives the space a childlike quality.
In the basilica's dimly lit underbelly, buttressing arches recede to the horizon. Every sound echoes. The ending hymn resonates from the nave above, vibrating through the dark chambers and rattling the mortar.
The new crypt is a bright beacon at the end of the undercroft, all sterile white marble, not in any way my image of what a crypt should be. The old crypt, on the other hand, is the very definition of a tomb. Dark and dingy, with long, heavy shadows in which any sort of nefarious creature could hide.
It's disappointing that renovations took away so much of the basilica’s character. The new paint, the bright tombs–they mute the building's history.
But it’s also fitting that our first cathedral should look toward the future rather than to the past. The neoclassical architecture, the updated renovations, even the on-site gift shop all signal a modern side to the Catholic Church not often seen in historic buildings.
The basilica and gift shop are open seven days a week. There are guided tours as well as maps for self-guided tours.