A Minneapolis Treasure – The Basilica of St. Mary

I’ve always admired the Basilica of St. Mary for its beauty and have often wanted to learn more about its history. Being tasked with writing a final paper for my Traditional Building course, I decided to explore this iconic Minneapolis structure. I was lucky enough to be granted an interview with Chuck Liddy who serves on the Facilities Assessment Committee for the Basilica to get inside details on the restoration of the structure.

Located near Downtown Minneapolis, the Basilica of Saint Mary stands proudly as a structural beauty and an ode to the Baroque and the Beaux-Arts style of Architecture.  Construction began with the laying of the cornerstone on May 31st, 1908 and the first Mass was in 1914. The church was the first in the United States to receive the distinction of “Basilica” by the Catholic Church in 1926. The 1960’s construction of the freeway that stretches along the West boundary of the site split the neighborhood and is blamed for a large decrease in church membership during that time (Salisbury, 2012). The structure fell into a state of disrepair as the loss of membership equated to a loss of funds to keep up the expansive Basilica campus. It was designated on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, but it wouldn’t be until the early 1990’s that efforts to restore the structure would begin to gain traction.

Water infiltration has proven to be the Basilica’s greatest enemy. The domed tower was known for its inability to sustain heavy rains. The building was so moist when restorers began their work that they were hesitant to do anything until it was adequately dry. In an interview with Chuck Liddy, Vice President of Miller Dunwiddie Architecture, he noted that the water damage caused efflorescence that is visible along the arches of the windows within the nave.

Interior photo of window in the Basilica

Note the white discoloration on the wall surrounding the window, this is called efflorescence.


Water damage is also credited with the cracking and ultimate failure of a dentil under the West bell tower. The 300 pound granite piece fell from the tower and smashed into the front steps in February of this year. It was concluded that water had seeped into cracks between the dentil and the tower. The water would freeze and thaw and over time expanded the crack to the point of breaking. As a result Liddy and the other members of the Basilica’s Facilities Assessment Committee elected the help of American Engineering and Testing to perform tests on the reaming dentil details along both bell towers. Dentils that were believed to have been structurally compromised were pinned to ensure they would not suffer the same fate.

View of bell towers from front lawn of Basilica.

The decorative blocks on the underside of the ledges of the towers are referred to as “dentils”. They look small in this photo, which is deceiving, they are large and each weigh about 300 pounds.

The first task of the Basilica’s restoration was to replace the leaky dome in the early 1990’s. Next, the Facilities Assessment Committee would need to ensure that the building was dry before they began any interior restoration. Liddy detailed, “… we placed electronic probes in the stone walls and plaster ceiling that monitors the moisture levels.” He went on to say that the probes are metered into a computer that is located in the attic of the Basilica. After close monitoring and research of similar restoration issues the Facilities Assessment Committee determined that it would take at least 10 years for the building to fully dry.

Interior view of dome

In 2011 the Basilica of St. Mary was awarded an $110,000 award from the Partners in Preservation to complete restorations on both the narthex and the sacristy. “The grant funded restoration of the paint to its original colors, new plaster moldings to replace old ones damaged from water leakage and stone cleaning. Outside money covered the cost of new light fixtures,” (Kane, 2012). Paint analysis in the narthex was completed by EverGreene Architectural Arts; a New York based firm specializing in the restoration of historic finishes. The sacristy analysis and restoration was completed by Conrad Schmitt Studios, a Milwaukee based firm that specializes in decorative painting and restoration. The interior paint finish was restored from the 1950’s redecoration to the original color scheme.

Newly resorted narthex.

Liddy spoke of the future plans for the ongoing restorations of the Basilica of St. Mary saying that there are plans to use infrared scanning to determine if and where any wet spots remain in the ceiling and walls of the structure. Paint analysis will also be used if funding is secured to complete a restoration of the nave. The intricately decorated ceiling of the nave has greyed over time due to smoke damage from burning candles. Lastly, Liddy mentioned plans to install probes to test the effects of vibrations from the nearby interstate on the dome and the bell towers, in hopes of preventing any future structural issues.

Granite balustrade.

The Basilica of St. Mary is an excellent example of Historic Preservation at work. The effors of Chuck Liddy and the rest of the Facilities Assessment Committee have ensured that Minneapolis will not be at a loss for this great building. As I sat inside the nave when I visited the Basilica I imagined what the ceiling looked like when it was first constructed, and I imagined what it will look like when fully restored. I’m excited to see this happen before my eyes. The Basilica isn’t just a piece of our history – its also history in the making. I want to thank Chuck Liddy for taking the time to speak with me. And thank you for stopping by for a read!

~until next time, Claire~







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