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Baltimore's Washington Monument

Last Friday, for the third time in less than a year, I found myself heading back down to Baltimore aka Charm City (a nickname that was apparently coined back in 1974 during an ad campaign to polish the city’s image) so that my daughter Amanda could attend the Otakon Convention being held there. While she was mixing and mingling with other fans of the web-comic Hanna’s Not a Boy’s Name my plan was to take way too many pictures so that I could spend hours trying to organize them when I got back to Connecticut !

Arriving in Baltimore around 11:00 a.m. I first dropped Amanda off at the Convention Center where she immediately faded into the crowd of people dressed in their favorite anime garb then drove about a half-mile up Charles Street to Mount Vernon Place which has been referred to by many as “the heart and soul of Baltimore ”. It was a spot I had seen only briefly on my previous jaunts down to Baltimore last year but that I had wanted to explore further and now I had the perfect opportunity.

Long before Mount Vernon Place consisted of four lovely parks and beautiful houses owned by some of Baltimore’s most prominent citizens, it was known as Howard’s Woods. The land belonged to Colonel John Eager Howard, Baltimore’s own revolutionary war hero and former Governor of Maryland, as part of his extensive property known as “Belvidere”.  The hilly land stood well north of Baltimore proper and it was on this spot that the town planned to erect the very first architectural monument honoring our nation’s first president. While it wasn’t the earliest landmark capped off in honor of the Virginia native — that distinction belongs to an 1827 stone monument built in Washington County — it was the first one conceived and it predates its cousin in Washington, D.C. by 55 years.

Washington Monument

In 1809, ten years after George Washington’s death, a group of citizens petitioned the General Assembly of Maryland for permission to hold a lottery to raise money for a monument and in 1810 permission was granted authorizing the raising of $100,000.   A design competition was announced in March of 1813 that offered $500 for the best design – an award that went to Robert Mills, a native of Charleston, South Carolina who prided himself on being the first entirely American-trained architect.  Mills would later go on to win the competition to design the Washington Monument in Washington D.C. in 1836 as well as be chosen Architect of Public Buildings in Washington.

The Washington Monument

Initially it was planned that the Washington monument in Baltimore would be constructed on the site of the city’s old Court House that was being razed but upon hearing that the monument was going to consist of a very tall column of marble, the owners of the houses surrounding the site protested that it might fall down on them or attract lightning. It was then that Colonel Howard who had served under Washington in the Revolutionary War came forward and happily donated land on his property where - should the statue of his former Commander fall over for whatever reason - it wasn’t going to harm anyone.

Washington through the leaves

On July 4th, 1815 a crowd of approximately 25,000 to 30,000 townspeople and assorted dignitaries gathered for the laying of the cornerstone on the hill in Howard’s Woods that would become the site of Baltimore’s Washington Monument. Construction began shortly afterward and continued on for just about 15 years until money got tight and Mills' original plans which had called for "a massive column resting on a base with balconies at several levels, inscriptions, and a crowning statue representing Washington, dressed as a Roman warrior, riding in a horse-drawn chariot" had to be scaled back.

Washington Monument in the Evening

All of the marble for the 160-foot Roman Doric column, as well as the three blocks of fine white marble weighing about seven tons each for the statue of Washington that would crown the monument, came from surrounding Baltimore County quarries but soaring costs (more than twice the original $100,000 that was originally raised) forced architect Mills to significantly simplify his original grand design for the monument to what it is today.

In 1826 another competition was held calling for designs from sculptors for the statue of George Washington to top the column with the design being awarded to Ernrico Causici of Verona, Italy who had sculpted several panels of the Rotunda of the United States Capitol in Washington D.C.  Causici decided to depict Washington resigning his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Armies – an act that took place in the senate chambers of the State House in Annapolis where the United States Congress sat for a brief time in late 1783 - though I'm pretty sure that Washington didn't wear a Roman toga for the occasion!

George Washington atop his monument in Baltimore

Captain James D. Woodside of the Washington Navy Yard, a rigging specialist, was brought in to execute the task of raising the almost-16 foot high sculpture to the top of the 160-foot column using a series of levers, braces, and pulleys.  Following the successful hoisting of the first two portions of the statue into place, the populace of Baltimore gathered once again in Howard’s Woods to watch the final section of the statue raised to the top of the column during a dedication ceremony on November 25th, 1829.

The Baltimore Washington Monument

When it was completed, the 178-foot monument could be seen from as far away as Baltimore's Harbor inspiring Herman Melville as Ishmael to remark in Chapter XXXV (The Mast-Head) of Moby Dick -
“Great Washington, too, stands high aloft on his towering main-mast in Baltimore, and like one of Hercules’ pillars, his column marks that point of human grandeur beyond which few mortals will go.”
In 1838 the iron fence around the base was designed by Mills; it contains some of the symbolism that had been deleted from the column due to cost considerations.  Inside the base is a small museum that chronicles the history of the monument and visitors are able to climb 228 stairs to the top of the monument where they are afforded a beautiful view of Baltimore.

Bottom of Baltimore's Washington Monument

As of this writing, the monument had been closed to the public following a safety study that was conducted in June of this year found mortar missing and metal support brackets rusting on the balcony at the top of the marble monument. This is the first time the monument has been closed since undergoing a $314,000 renovation in 1992 and it was, of course, just my luck to be there during the three months that the city anticipates the monument to be closed! Ah well, I'm so out of shape I'd probably still be trying to get up those 228 steps so it's probably better off that it was closed!

Lafayette & Washington Monuments

Next post I'll go overboard with pictures from Mount Vernon Place and the parks and buildings surrounding Baltimore's grand tribute to George Washington!

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