If you are fortunate enough to live or work in Mount Vernon, you’ve probably noticed the barricades that recently went up around the Washington Monument. The Baltimore Sun has been covering the project for months, and surprise!, there has been no lack of controversy regarding overall restoration of Mount Vernon Place. City Parks and Rec, at one point, had a plan that would’ve removed many of the architectural details from the park. Other parties have taken issue with plans to replace the trees around the monument, some of which are diseased and failing. Some consider the park and monument their front-yard view, while others show up en masse to celebrate events such as the Baltimore Book Festival, Flower Mart, WTMD’s First Thursdays, and the list goes on. We thought it might be interesting to pose some questions about the project to an architectural historian and, as luck would have it, we happen to know one. Lance Humphries is a historian, the chairman of Mount Vernon Place Conservancy Restoration Committee, and H. Furlong Baldwin Library regular. (Joe Tropea)
Underbelly: Why was the monument closed in 2010? Did it sustain any damage from the earthquake we felt here in 2011?
LH: As part of the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy’s development of a master plan for the restoration of all of Mount Vernon Place, an initial structural survey was taken of the condition of the Washington Monument. The engineering team found that the large stones that comprise the parapet walls of the monument’s upper balcony were in many places missing the bed of mortar that supports them, and that some of these stones were therefore largely resting on large iron pins which “stitch” them to the stone underneath. Rust was compromising this now exposed iron, suggesting that this area should be stabilized. For these reasons, the City of Baltimore closed the Monument in 2010. The monument did not suffer any discernible damage from the 2011 earthquake that hit Baltimore and the East Coast.
Underbelly: I saw that barricades had gone up sometime after New Year’s Day, and have read in The Sun that scaffolding will shortly follow. They reported that $5 million in repairs are planned. Is that the most recent status of the repairs?
LH: The monument restoration is coming in at around 5 1/2 millions dollars. The most expensive repairs are obviously related to masonry conservation. Other significant expenses are the restoration of the original cast iron fence, interior finishes, and the mechanical systems.
Underbelly: Speaking of the fence, I read in The Sun that the plan includes a new cast-iron fence painted its original color, dark green. I’m curious how we know that was the original color?
LH: There is no new fence planned. The fence around the monument was designed by the monument’s architect Robert Mills, and was cast at the Savage Manufacturing Company in Savage, Maryland. It was one of the last portions of the monument completed. The 1836 contract for the work is among the many documents in the Washington Monument Papers in the MdHS’s collection. The first decorative color was applied several years later by painter George T. Rosensteel. This work is recorded in Rosensteel’s bill to the Board of Managers in 1842 where he documents it took him 37 1/2 days to paint the fence, perhaps first with one primer coat but then with “Bronze green paint.” An 1849 guide book of the monument described the fence as “bronzed.” This color was also documented by Matthew Mosca who investigated the historic finishes on the monument. It may be more like weathered bronze (a greenish-blue) than “dark green.” The wood exterior doors were also “bronzed” originally. It was common in the nineteenth century to use one material and then finish it to look like another.
Underbelly: Either way, Rosensteel is a fantastic name for a cast-iron fence painter. Since we didn’t have photography when all this started, can you describe what the monument’s surroundings looked like when the original construction began? Had the area changed much by the time it was completed? What documents do we have to base this on?
LH: When the cornerstone of the monument was laid on July 5, 1815 the monument’s surrounds was a forest—known as Howard’s Woods. John Eager Howard donated the initial 200-foot square area from his vast Belvidere estate that lay north of the city. At the time the monument was begun Charles Street did not yet reach the monument, probably ending somewhere around Mulberry or Franklin Streets. The Squares that now surround the monument, comprising Mount Vernon Place and Washington Place, were not formally laid out until 1831. As of that date, only one house had been built on the squares, the residence of Charles Howard, John Eager Howard’s son, built on the northeast corner in 1829. As documented in an early watercolor, Charles Street was dirt in front of the monument and the rest of the area still remained wooded. As the Howard family sold the various building lots around the squares in the 1830s and ’40s, the forest gave way to a man-made landscape.
Around 1850, the four squares were surrounded by fences and the first of a number of plantings of trees installed. While the monument hasn’t changed too much since it was completed, the landscape has changed several times since then.
Underbelly: You mentioned that the monument was designed by Robert Mills, but what ended up being erected is a far cry from what Mills originally designed. He originally planned for carriages to be able to pass under the Monument. In fact there was a competition held to design the Monument, right?
LH: The Washington Monument was intended to be located in what is today called Monument Square, but which was known in the late eighteenth century as Courthouse Square, because it was the location of Baltimore’s first courthouse. On account of the courthouse and a cliff beyond, the further extension of Calvert Street was blocked. In the 1780s this courthouse was underpinned on one large arch, and the cliff reduced, which allowed Calvert Street to be cut through. As plans for a new courthouse emerged in the early nineteenth century, proposals were developed to turn the former courthouse site into an open plaza with a memorial to George Washington at its center.
Several of the extant designs for a monument to Washington echo the earlier courthouse in their use of a triumphal arch, including those by Maximilian Godefroy and Joseph Ramée, although neither appears to have planned to direct carriages and other street traffic through the arch. Robert Mills’s winning design, which he submitted in January 1814, while a column and not an arch, retained an archway at the monument’s base, presumably for street circulation.
Mills’s elaborate and towering design presented challenges to the Board of Managers; it’s projected height concerned those who lived on Monument Square as they feared it might topple on their houses in the event of a natural disaster, and its complexity appeared beyond the manager’s budget. A new location was donated by John Eager Howard from his large Belvidere estate at the head of Charles Street, where the projected height would not be worrisome. By the time the cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1815, Mills had dramatically simplified the design to a monumental column resting on a square base. The design retained the archways, now approached by steps, but as the building rose, these too were reduced to doorways.
Underbelly: How long will the project take to complete and when will the public be able to visit the top of the monument again?
LH: We anticipate that the monument restoration will take about 13-16 months, and hope that it will be open to the public around the time of its bicentennial in July 2015.
Stereoview slideshow: (In case you’re wondering, the MdHS library does have a proper viewer for our stereoview collection.)
Sources and further reading:
An Authentic Account with Regard to the Laying the Cornerstone of the Washington Monument Now Erecting in the City of Baltimore… MdHS, MF 241.W1P8 1815.
Washington Monument Baltimore: An Account of the Laying the Cornerstone, Raising the Statue, Description… MdHS, Rare MF 241 .W1W2.