Designing the Washington Monument

An early design by Mills.  Washington Monument, Elevation of Front by Robert Mills. Washington Monument Competition. From MS 876: Washington Monument Papers, 1810-1843. MdHS, 1991-49-3.

An early design by Mills. Washington Monument, Elevation of Front by Robert Mills. Washington Monument Competition. From MS 876: Washington Monument Papers, 1810-1843. MdHS, 1991-49-3.

This Independence Day weekend, Baltimore celebrates the rededication of its most recognizable landmark, the Washington Monument. The Mount Vernon Place Conservancy is hosting the Monumental Bicentennial Celebration on Saturday, July 4th, a festival to honor the reopening of the nation’s first memorial to George Washington. The monument has been closed to visitors since 2010, when it was deemed structurally unsound, and has been undergoing extensive restoration work to repair masonry and cosmetic issues since the fall of 2013.

A similar scene played out 200 years ago when the Washington Monument’s cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1815. Over 25,000 people attended the groundbreaking ceremony which had all of the pomp and circumstance befitting a celebration of the Revolutionary War general and inaugural president. The local Masons turned out in full regalia. Speeches were given in honor of Washington’s legacy. The crowd sang along to renditions of “Yankee Doodle.” A 39-gun salute was fired, a shot for each year of the newly independent country. The night ended with a display of fireworks that illuminated the monument in vibrant color. In his account of the day, John Horace Pratt described the atmosphere: “Divine providence seemed to smile upon the occasion; the air was delightfully cool and the firmament serene. The evening silence and tranquility that closed the joyful turbulence of the day, formed a striking contrast, and seemed to display that sobriety of pleasure which the solemnity of the occasion demanded.”(1)

A time capsule was also buried with the cornerstone. Several glass jars holding artifacts, such as coins and newspaper clippings, were placed inside the cornerstone to commemorate the events of the day. This and another capsule from the 1915 centennial celebration were unearthed during the recent restoration process. The second capsule held similar items, including one of the earliest known photographs of the Declaration of Independence. The items will be on display at the Maryland Historical Society through December 31, 2015.

An example of one of the lottery tickets sold to raise money. Washington Monument ticket, Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, MdHS.

An example of one of the lottery tickets sold to raise money. Washington Monument ticket, Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, MdHS.

Work on the monument began long before the cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1815 and continued long after. A group of patriotic citizens petitioned the Maryland General Assembly in 1809 to build a monument to George Washington. The courthouse on Calvert Street was slated for demolition, and the neighbors feared an unattractive new building would be constructed in its place. They much preferred a statue of an American hero that would “stimulate the young to emulation, to noble and honorable actions.”(2)  The legislature agreed and appointed twenty three notable Maryland men to a Board of Managers which would supervise the monumental task of raising money to build the structure and approving designs. John Comegys served as president until his death in 1814 and was replaced by James A. Buchanan, who held the post until 1819. Robert Gilmor, Jr. took over the position after Buchanan resigned and served until the committee dissolved.

Godefroy's triumphal arch, 1810. Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, CB5471(REFERENCE PHOTO)

Godefroy’s triumphal arch, 1810. Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, CB5471, MdHS. (REFERENCE PHOTO)

The Board of Managers’ first task was to raise money for design and construction. The Maryland legislature allowed for a lottery system to raise $100,000. The public could purchase tickets to fund the edifice. They would then be entered into a drawing to win various cash prizes. A series of six lotteries raised more than the desired amount for the project, but final expenditures far exceeded the proposed budget.

French-born architect J. Maximilian Godefroy was initially approached to design the shrine.  Godefroy had recently designed the St. Mary’s Seminary Chapel in Baltimore, which suggested his ability to create a fittingly reverent monument. He submitted five different designs, including one that held true to his French heritage. He presented a triumphal arch, reminiscent of the Parisian L’Arc de Triomphe, bearing military symbols and a statue of George Washington dressed in Greek or Roman garb. His other ideas included a fountain covered by a rotunda, a rotunda with a statute of Washington standing atop the cupola, and a square featuring architectural trophies, or symbolic statues, and a statute of the president. The drawing of the arch appears to be the only surviving proposal.

Despite the variety of ideas, the Board was apparently dissatisfied with the selection. The members decided to solicit designs from other architects. So in 1813, a competition was advertised to find the best design that cost less than $100,000 to build. Fearing a lack of American talent, the Board’s design committee opened the contest to European artists for consideration. The winner would receive $500 for his work and supervise the construction of the monument.

Ramee's design. CB5472 Design for the Washington Monument by Joseph Ramee, 1813

Ramee’s arch, 1813. Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, CB5472, MdHS.

The Board received several entries from distinguished architects from both the United States and Europe, though perhaps not as many as expected or desired. War broke out between America and England which may have distracted would-be applicants from entering the contest. Godefroy resubmitted his triumphal arch rendering for further consideration. Another French architect Joseph-Jacques Ramée entered a strikingly similar design: a triumphal arch featuring a statue of the honoree. Ramée had only recently arrived in the United States but was already a sought after builder. He was commissioned to design an estate in New York state in 1813. When the job fell through, he offered his talents in Philadelphia and Baltimore, where he built fine homes and estates. He later returned to New York to plan new buildings for Union College in Schenectady, for which he is best known.

Rogers' submission the competition. Architectural drawings, Museum department, MdHS. (REFERENCE PHOTO)

Rogers’ submission the competition. Architectural drawings, Museum department, MdHS. (REFERENCE PHOTO)

Nicholas Rogers, a Baltimorean and amateur architect, may have also presented a plan. His entry was submitted anonymously but scholars believe the rendering reflects his style. Rogers was not a classically trained architect or builder but an avid dilettante. His main work was his own Baltimore estate, Druid Hill. His vision paid tribute to both Washington’s distinguished career and his Masonic association. The tall, thin obelisk monument prominently featured emblems such as the sun, moon, and Master Mason, as well as numerical symbols incorporated in the design that would be apparent to the indoctrinated. Rogers was perhaps inspired to participate because of his own service in the American Revolution and personal acquaintance with Washington.

The drawing Latrobe submitted for the Richmond Monumental Church design competition. Architectural drawings, Gallery Department, MdHS. (REFERENCE PHOTO)

The drawing Latrobe submitted for the Richmond Monumental Church design competition. Architectural drawings, Gallery Department, MdHS. (REFERENCE PHOTO)

Benjamin Henry Latrobe, often referred to as the father of American architecture, may have decided to participate in the competition as well. In 1810, the British architect ensured his friend Godefroy that he would not enter a design out of respect for his superior skill. However, an unsigned pyramid concept was received which board member, Robert Gilmor, Jr., believed to be that of Latrobe. By 1813, he had fallen on hard times and needed the prize money. Some scholars have attributed Rogers’ obelisk to Latrobe, but this design seems to stray too far from his aesthetics. Latrobe seemed to be an excellent candidate for the job. He designed the Baltimore Basilica, which began construction in 1806, and he served as Thomas Jefferson’s Architect of the Capitol. His entry may have been hastily considered, because the design he presented did not fit the parameters of the competition. His pyramid was much too big for the allotted space and appears to be a redesign of his submission for the Richmond Monumental Church competition. He also submitted these plans for the Washington, D. C. monument to Washington.

South Carolinian architect Robert Mills won the competition in the end. The judges decided his columnar monument best captured Washington’s legacy. They were also quite pleased that a born and raised American had the talent to design such an important shrine. Mills studied his craft exclusively in the United States unlike almost all other architects who took a European tour. His education built upon the traditional course of study undertaken by “gentlemen-architects,” which primarily relied upon theoretical knowledge, and added such practical knowledge as engineering and fire-proofing methods. His other contemporaries were builders who styled themselves as architects without the design and style education of the gentlemen-architects. Thomas Jefferson, a gentleman-architect himself, took Mills under his wing and encouraged his American tour. He also studied design under Latrobe, but the teacher’s loss of several competitions to his former student caused animosity between the architects.

Mills’ design for the Washington Monument was the most elaborate. His initial submission was accompanied by a long essay written to the board explaining the aims of his project, which may have been more influential than the designs themselves. In his essay, Mills emphasized his Americanness. He argued that, “For the Honor of our country, my sincere wish is that it may not be said; to foreign genius and to foreign hands we are indebted for a Monument to perpetuate the glory of our beloved chief.”(3)

Sketches of different column types from Mills’ notebook from his original submission. Mills, Robert, "Various Designs," 1813, Vertical File.

Sketches of different column types from Mills’ notebook from his original submission. Mills, Robert, “Various Designs,” 1813, Vertical File, MdHS.

He provided six different design choices. His conception was vastly different from the monument as it stands today. It was much more symbolic in its use of trophies and statues, while at the same time, the monument was a very literal interpretation of Washington’s life. Mills envisioned an octagonal structure marked by text and graphical panels detailing the events of the American Revolution and Washington’s presidency. He knew his design would surpass the $100,000 budget, but he felt no expense should be spared for such as important relic. He put forth in his essay, “…what sacrifice of wealth, what human effort in skill & labor ought republican America to consider too great in rearing a monument to her Washington?”(4) On January 12, 1814, he presented his final entry. The new rendering carried similar details but took on the appearance of a pagoda rather than a Doric column. The pagoda would be topped with a statue of Washington riding in the Chariot of Victory.

Mills’ victory did not come without controversy. When the neighbors of the now-demolished court house saw the design, they became worried that the tall tower would topple onto their houses; so the monument was moved. John Eager Howard, former governor and Revolutionary War veteran, offered to rent out a section of his farmland for forty dollars per year, land that would later become the Mount Vernon neighborhood. At the time, his property, known as Howard’s Woods, stood relatively far from the heart of the city, but was on a hill high above the harbor. From this new site, Washington could watch over the new city from above. The courthouse square would eventually become the location of the Godefroy designed Battle Monument, a tribute to those who fought in the Battle of Baltimore against the British.

An interior view of the proposed monument. Washington Monument Papers, MS 876, MdHS.

An interior view of the proposed monument. Washington Monument Papers, MS 876, MdHS.

Mills’ peers were also unimpressed with his proposed design and ruthlessly mocked his concept. Godefroy is said to have referred to the pagoda as that of “Bob the Small.” Even his former teacher had few kind words. Latrobe remarked to Godefroy in an 1814 letter that, “Mills is a wretched designer. He came to me too late to acquire principles of taste. He is a copyist, and is fit for nothing else.” Latrobe, later in the letter, acknowledged some of Mills’ talent, mainly his ability to appeal to clients, which would be “the ruin of you and me, and therefore we shall go to the wall, while he will strut in the street.”(5) Mills’ work had been chosen over Latrobe’s for Richmond’s Monumental Church, and later Mills would take the honor of designing the Capitol’s Washington Monument over his mentor.

Mills was not immune to the criticisms. According to an article by Rembrandt Peale, upon the eve of the cornerstone laying ceremony, Mills still did not have a final draft of the monument’s design. He had whittled his choices to three designs and decided to ask his friend, Peale, a renowned portraitist, to pick the best. Perhaps he doubted his own abilities. Peale’s artistic sensibilities led him to choose the simplest of the three, which featured a tall column crowned with a statue of Washington that rose from atop an ornamented base. He shared the architect community’s distaste for the elaborate pagoda with external stairs that snaked around the column to the top of the monument. Peale enlisted theater scene painter Henry Warren to paint a rendering of the edifice for the Independence Day ceremony. Peale’s involvement may have been conflated by the artist himself, but certainly suggests that Mills had at least partly reworked his design in accordance with public opinion.

Construction of the column was not completed until 1825. The project was delayed by irregular funding. Even though Mills had greatly simplified the design, the cost to build greatly surpassed the original budget. In total, the monument would cost over $200,000 to erect. The lotteries enacted to fund the venture could not raise reliable income, and eventually the laws on lotteries changed. The State took over the fundraising, and the necessary amount was raised by a combination of public monies, subscriptions, and lottery funds.

Plans for the trophies that would be placed on each corner of the monument's base. Washington Monument Papers, MS 876, MdHS.

Plans for the trophies that would be placed on each corner of the monument’s base. Washington Monument Papers, MS 876, MdHS.

In 1826, the Board of Managers held another competition to find a sculptor to carve the statue of Washington, which would grace the top of the column. Italian sculptor Enrico Causici won the honor. He had sculpted several pieces for government buildings in Washington, D. C., and his bid of $9,000 appears to have been the lowest. Causici chose to depict Washington from a painting by John Trumbull which captured his resignation as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army at the Maryland State House. His figure was shaped from local marble, stood fourteen-feet tall, and weighed over twenty tons. Hoisting the statue to the top of the monument proved a significant engineering challenge, but a friend of Mills and sea captain, James D. Woodside, was able to devise of system of rigging, and the last piece of the statue was put in place in November 1829.

Even after nearly fifteen years of work, the monument was not yet complete. Mills desperately wanted to add grand architectural trophies to the corners of the base, but limited funds prevented this. As late as 1842, the Board of Managers unsuccessfully petitioned the state legislature for the additional money. The inscription to Washington on the monument was also hotly debated. Board president Gilmor frequently corresponded with former President John Quincy Adams regarding the proper wording, which would adorn the walls in bronze letters. Mills continued to add details over the years, such as the iron fencing around the base.

During this time, another much simpler monument to Washington was built in Maryland. Citizens of the Washington County town of Boonsboro banded together on Independence Day 1827 to begin construction on a dry-laid stone tower near the summit of South Mountain. The thirty-foot monument was finished in September of that year and bears the honor of being the first completed monument to Washington in the country.

Baltimore may have not gotten the lavish monument Mills had originally conceived, but gained a timeless and iconic symbol. The simpler column design was in the end a more fitting tribute to Washington, a man who eschewed ostentation and boastfulness. (Lara Westwood)


Sources and Further Reading:

(1) Pratt, John Horace. An Authentic Account of All the Proceedings on the Fourth of July, 1815, with Regard to Laying the Corner Stone of the Washington Monument, Now Erecting in the City of Baltimore Accompanied by an Engraving of the Monument … and a Biographical Sketch of. Baltimore: John Horace Pratt, 1815.

(2) Miller, J. Jefferson. “The Designs for the Washington Monument in Baltimore.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians XXIII, no. 1 (1964): 19-28.

(3) Hoyt, Jr., William D. “Robert Mills and the Washington Monument in Baltimore.” Maryland Historical Magazine 32, no. 1-4 (1939).

(4) Ibid.

(5) Latrobe, Benjamin Henry, Jeffrey A. Cohen, and Charles E. Brownell. The Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Vol. 1. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1994.

Alexander, Robert L. “Nicholas Rogers, Gentleman-Architect of Baltimore.” Maryland Historical Magazine 78, no. 2 (1983): 85-105.

Alexander, Robert L. The Architecture of Maximilian Godefroy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

Bryan, John Morrill. Robert Mills, Architect. Washington, D.C.: American Institute of Architects Press, 1989.

Gallagher, H. M. Pierce. Robert Mills, Architect of the Washington Monument, 1781-1855. New York: Columbia University Press, 1935.

Mount Vernon Place Conservancy.

Peale, Rembrandt. “Reminiscences. Desultory.” The Crayon: 5.

Rusk, William Sener. “Washington Monument.” In Art in Baltimore: Monuments and Memorials …, 101-104. Baltimore: Norman, Remington, 1929.

Scharf, J. Thomas. History of Baltimore City and County. Baltimore: Regional Pub., 1971. 265-267.

Union College. “A plan, a campus, a legacy.”

Washington Monument Papers, MS 876, Maryland Historical Society



  1. [...] to fund the monument. They would then be entered into a drawing to win various cash prizes. See Designing the Washington Monument, Maryland Historical [...]

Post a comment


Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On TwitterVisit Us On YoutubeVisit Us On Pinterest