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The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is neither imitative nor duplicative of any other church in the world. Its architecture is Romanesque-Byzantine in style and its construction is entirely of stone, brick, tile and mortar—without steel structural beams, framework or columns.

Romanesque architecture is defined by its massive size, thick walls, arches, piers, groin vaults, towers and ornamented ambulatories. The form of the structure is clearly defined and symmetrical. In comparison to Gothic structures, a Romanesque church is quite simple in appearance.

Byzantine architecture in the West was superseded by that of the Romanesque style. The dome is the dominant feature in Byzantine architecture and is one of the great advances in church architecture fostered by the Byzantine style. A circular or elliptical dome was placed over a square or rectangular room by means of pendentives, the triangular construction of which strengthened and supported the base that holds the dome.

The original design for the Shrine (1914-1915) was that of a 14th Century French Gothic structure. In 1918, the Building Committee and the CUA Board of Trustees determined that in order "to provide a worthy church edifice for the University," the church should be built in the Romanesque style, "liberally interpreted." One year later, the architectural style agreed upon was a composite of a Romanesque exterior and a Byzantine interior. Charles D. Maginnis (1867-1955), "an architect of churches," stated that his aim was to achieve an original building; one that was not imitative of Haggia Sophia in Istanbul, the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice, or the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome. The building was to be sunk in tradition, but not "just like such and such a cathedral." It was to be "distinctively American," symbolizing the faith and love for Mary of an entire and great nation.

The reasons, as cited by the Architects, for the Romanesque-Byzantine style are as follows:

1) Experience of the architect; this style permitted the building of the exterior at one time, the interior at another.

2) Romanesque-Byzantine style harmonized best with the architecture of Washington, D.C.

3) Construction at Mount St. Alban's in Washington of the Episcopalian cathedral in the Gothic style.

4) Influence of John J. Cardinal Glennon (1862-1946), Archbishop of St. Louis, member of the CUA Board of Trustees and a close friend of Bishop Shahan and Charles Maginnis, who strongly preferred Romanesque: "While the Gothic . . . appears . . . to lift the people to God, the Roman style or the Byzantine . . . endeavors to bring God down to earth . . . [God] lives with us." The "new" cathedral in St. Louis, cornerstone laid in 1907--same year as that of the National Cathedral in Washington--is in the Romanesque-Byzantine style.


1919 - 1936 Maginnis and Walsh of Boston, with associate Frederick V. Murphy, Professor of Architecture at CUA.
Timothy F. Walsh (b. 1868 - d. 7 July 1934, North Scituate, MA)
Frederick Vernon Murphy (1879 - 1958)
1954 - 1959 Maginnis and Walsh and Kennedy of Boston, active architect: Eugene F. Kennedy, Jr.
Charles D. Maginnis (b. 7 Jan 1867, Londonderry, Ireland; d. 15 Feb 1955, Brookline, MA)
Eugene F. Kennedy Jr. (b. 31 Jan 1904, Brooklyn, NY - d. 7 Nov 1986, MA)


1922 - 1925 Charles J. Cassidy Co., Washington, D.C.
1925 - 1928 R. P. Whitty Co., Washington, D.C.
1928 - 1933 John McCloskey & Co., Philadelphia, PA
1954 - 1959 John McShain, Inc., Philadelphia, PA
John McShain (b. 21 Dec 1898, Philadelphia - d. 9 Sept 1989, Killarney, Ireland)
1960 - 1961 John A. Volpe Construction Co.


The Shrine stands more than 200 ft. above sea level.


Length: 459 ft.
Width including transepts and porches: 240 ft.
Width at the nave: 157 ft.
Height of campanile (to top of cross): 329 ft.
Height terrace to apex of main roof gable: 120 ft.
Height terrace to the top of the great dome cross: 237 ft.
Diameter of the Great Dome: 108 ft.


Length: 399 ft.
Width at the crossing and transepts: 180 ft.
Width at the nave: 58 ft.
Width at the nave and two side aisles: 87 ft.
Height, nave floor to the apex of the nave domes: 100 ft.
Height, nave floor to the apex of the Trinity or Great Dome: 159 ft.
Diameter of the Trinity or Great Dome: 89 ft.
Gross floor area of the Great or Upper Church 76,396 sq. ft.
Gross floor area of the Lower Level, including Crypt Church 129,912 sq. ft.
Seating capacity, Upper Church (approximate): 3,500 persons
Total capacity, Upper Church (approximate): 6,000 persons

The Shrine ranks in size among the ten largest churches of the world.

It is larger in length, by more than 25%, than the corresponding proportions of the Cathedral of St. Patrick in New York.

The diameter of the Trinity or Great Dome of the National Shrine is more than twice that of the central dome of St. Mark's in Venice, Italy.


Exterior walls: Indiana Limestone (350 train carloads)
Lower areas, e.g., steps: New England Granite
Roof: Mission tile
Great Dome and Campanile pyramid: Polychrome tiles
Common brick: 10 million
Face brick: 1.5 million
Concrete: 10,000 cubic yards
Heating System: Radiant Heat (6 miles of pipe beneath 50,000 sq. ft. of marble flooring)
Nave lighting: 21 spotlights of 500-Watts in each dome
Great Dome lighting: 37 spotlights of 500-Watts and a circlet of 18 spotlights of 1000-Watts

Exterior Iconographic Schemes

East Facade: Faith
West Facade: Charity
South Facade: Mary, the Mother of Christ, the Messiah and the Divine Redeemer
North Facade: Mary, the Immaculate Queen of the Universe by Ivan Mestrovic (1883-1962)

Questions and inquiries may be addressed to the ARCHIVIST of the BNSIC.



Ambulatory A covered walkway or aisle that makes the circuit of the nave and apses of the Upper Church, with chapels radiating to the east, the west, and to the north.
Apse The vaulted, semi-circular areas to the east, west and north of the sanctuary in the Upper Curch.
Baldachin [baldacchin, baldachino, baldaquin] The free-standing canopy of four columns and arches above the altar in the sanctuary of the Upper Church. The term comes from the Spanish baldaquin or the Italian baldacco, which refers to the lavish brocaded material imported from Baghdad and hung as a canopy over an altar or doorway. The term also applies to the canopy used in Eucharistic processions and to that which covers the episcopal throne or cathedra. The most famous of baldachins is that of Bernini (1598-1680) in the Basilica of St. Peter.
Chancel In the Upper Church it is the area between the baldachin altar and the main altar.
Clerestory That part of the Shrine, which would be a second "story" and "clear" of the floor, thereby allowing an unobstructed view of the roof. The large windows above the nave are Clerestory Windows.
Galleries Spans the width of the narthex, the length of the nave and the chancel area. Located in the south gallery above the narthex are the Rose Window (Ave Maria), the South Gallery Organ (1965 by M. P. Möller, Op. 9702) and the bank of pontifical trumpets; in the east and west nave and the chancel galleries are the clerestory windows; in the west chancel gallery is the Chancel Organ (Möller, Op. 9702).
Narthex The area of the church extending across the south side, between the nave and the vestibule. In former days, it was the area reserved for the penitents and catechumens.
Nave From the Latin navis for "ship." The central open space of the church, traditionally for the worshipping community. It is believed that in early Christianity, the symbolism of the ship related to St. Peter or the Ark of Noah.
Sanctuary The area in which the baldachin altar is located.
Transept A rectangular area which cuts across the main axis of the building. It gives the Shrine the shape of a Latin cross.
Vestibule The area between the main outer doors and the main inner doors which lead into the narthex.

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