When it was decided to restore Baltimore’s famed Basilica, John Franz stepped in to recreate the original furniture.


The Baltimore Basilica was the first great metropolitan cathedral built in the United States.

When the United States Constitution was ratified in 1788, Catholics in the new country rejoiced over their newfound freedom of worship and determined to build a uniquely American cathedral to celebrate an end to their persecution. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect of the Capitol, volunteered his services to the effort, and by 1821, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary was completed in Baltimore, MD. Considered by experts to be one of the world’s finest examples of 19th century architecture, America’s first Cathedral has seen nearly two centuries of history made inside its walls, including visits by Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa. In 2001, a campaign was launched to restore the historic Basilica to Latrobe’s original vision. This worthy effort enlisted the services of John Franz Furniture and Cabinetmakers Inc. of Glen Arm, MD.

Selected from a short list of qualified craftsmen, John Franz specializes in architectural millwork, including custom furniture. Employing five men full time in a 6,000-square-foot shop, the company does 90 percent of its business in the commercial area, including law offices, corporate offices and lobby areas, reception areas, health care facilities and nurses stations, with a recent highlight being its work on the Northrup Grumman West Quest lobby renovation.

The winner of many awards over the years from organizations such as the Associated Builders and Contractors, Baltimore Heritage Historic Preservation and a 1994 Custom Woodworking Business Design Portfolio Award (Commercial/Institutional Furniture), among others, Franz was the logical choice to provide reproductions of the original furniture in the Basilica.

“I’ve always been around antiques and really nice furniture and developed an interest early on,” Franz explains. He apprenticed in a furniture shop from 1974 to 1977, when he opened his own shop with an emphasis on restoration and new reproduction furniture pieces. “For this job we had to submit our portfolio to the architect and general contractor for review. We had to produce shop drawings of the armchairs, side chairs, stools and kneelers. These documents will be kept in the Basilica archives for generations to come.

“The furniture that we made was from the home of the first Archbishop of Baltimore, Archbishop John Carroll (1735-1815),” Franz continues. “The pieces were probably made circa 1776- 1800 and are believed to have been used in the Basilica.

“We were given one of each piece of the original furniture for us to reproduce,” Franz continues. “We provided 12 kneelers, 12 side chairs, six armchairs and eight stools. All of the pieces were made with traditional joinery and finished with a full-filled conversion varnish satin finish.

Franz recreated the original kneeler and then used the dimensions and style to create new kneelers that would fit better with the chairs and stools.

“The chairs are made of genuine Honduras mahogany, which we had to hand-pick particularly for color, grain and quality. There is a small amount of poplar as a secondary wood below the upholstery. The front frame rails and the crest rails of the chairs are veneered with crotch mahogany veneer, just as the originals were.

"The stools are also made of mahogany. We veneered the bull nose moulding with crotch mahogany using a vacuum bag clamp.

“The kneelers are made completely of mahogany. The only surviving kneeler is a walnut one that is more or less of a Victorian style. We were given the job to restore the original kneeler to its original appearance. Then we were asked to use the original kneeler’s dimensions and general style to design a new kneeler that would fit better in style and appearance with the new chairs and stools.”

The upholstery was subcontracted to a local shop, but the woodworking itself posed its own difficulties. “The back post on the side chairs was a particular challenge,” says Franz. “We had to enlist the services of a shop with a 3-D CNC router to rough-out the profile for us to stay within budget and schedule. After that, the posts were all formed by hand.”

Getting these types of jobs is the direct result of Franz’s commitment to providing the highest level of professionalism. “We have the equipment and the talented personnel that know how to do these jobs,” Franz explains. Employees have a history of longevity and take pride in keeping to the high standards they have set. “We never make promises for deadlines we know we can’t keep.

We are not afraid to say ‘no’ if we are too busy. We would rather deliver quality projects than try to put more through the shop quicker. We want slow and steady growth to maintain [no more than four or five jobs in-house at any one time]. That is what we are known for. We are conservative, and that is why we are still here when other shops have come and gone. It is a nice steady pace of growth.

“We got into architectural millwork because of our relationships with general contractors,” Franz adds. “They would call us and ask for doors or mouldings reproduced, and the relationships started growing. Although we work with five to eight general contactors, most of our work is negotiated. We rarely have to bid a job. We will usually get a call saying ‘Here are the drawings,’ and ‘Give us a price.”

Helping to restore the original American archdiocese offered additional benefits besides monetary profit. “The best part about this project,” Franz says, “was the great personal satisfaction of working on a project of such historical importance and high profile.” Certainly, visitors to the historic Basilica will appreciate Franz’ efforts as well.

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