By Cathleen McGuigan

Nov. 6, 2006 issue - This week, the 200-year-old neoclassical Baltimore Basilica will reopen its weighty oak doors after a two-year, $32 million face-lift. The restoration of America’s first Roman Catholic cathedral is a triumph for preservationists, both for its history and design: it’s considered the masterpiece of architect Benjamin Latrobe, best known for his work on the U.S. Capitol. After a dingy decline, the Basilica’s lofty interior has been refashioned according to Latrobe’s elegantly simple intentions, especially the restoration of skylights set high in the spectacular dome, which admit a heavenly light into the sanctuary below.
But this successful makeover—paid for by private donations—highlights a real crisis: the hundreds of crumbling historic churches and synagogues across the country, whose shrinking congregations can’t keep up—let alone restore—their decaying buildings.