Fireworks explode over the Washington Monument in December 2022. Credit: Mount Vernon Place Conservancy

This year’s holiday fireworks over Mount Vernon Place have faded and the ceremony to light Baltimore’s famed Washington Monument is a memory. But the historic park in the heart of the city is gearing up for its next big step: major environmental and accessibility improvements to open spaces at the north and south ends.

2022 was a landmark year for the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, the non-profit organization that operates and maintains the historic monument and the small park spaces that surround it.

For the first time, the conservancy was in full control of a signature winter event: the December monument lighting festivities that attracted thousands of people downtown for music, food, drink, and pyrotechnics.

Also this year, the organization surpassed more than half the funds needed to start its next extensive renovation project in Mount Vernon Place, raising a total of more than $7 million of the $12 million anticipated price tag for planned park improvements.

Seven years after the completion of a major restoration to the Washington Monument itself, non-profit and community leaders are preparing to start on the next phase of the master plan for improvements to Mount Vernon Place. The upcoming project involves the replacement of compacted soils so that trees and plants can thrive, the installation of water and electrical lines and accessibility and curb improvements so the north and south open spaces in the square can be more fully used by all.

Mount Vernon Place “has got beautiful bones, but there are some of them that are crumbling,” said Lance Humphries, executive director of the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy. “We’re trying to reach that goal of making it the best version of itself, because it’s just a beautiful place.”

As the conservancy continues its mission of preserving a historic area and making sure its surroundings and widely enjoyed and appreciated, it is increasingly becoming a success story in public-private partnerships and community involvement.

The non-profit organization was formed in 2008 through a partnership between the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association and the Friends of Mount Vernon Place. Humphries, who was active in the formation, said neighborhood advocates and city officials recognized that Mount Vernon Place was “too important of a place in the city to not have somebody who is watching and managing this whole area.”

The monument and square date to the early 19th century. The 178-foot-tall memorial in the middle of the square was designed by noted architect Robert Mills, and is the first landmark in the U.S. dedicated to President George Washington. Its cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1815 — three decades before construction first began on D.C.’s Washington Monument — and the north and south parks were designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. in the 1870s. The current design — now over 100 years old — was created by Carrère and Hastings in 1917-20.

As the monument approached its bicentennial and conditions languished, the conservancy commissioned a master plan for renovations and reached an agreement with the city to take over operations of the monument and adjacent parks from several agencies in 2012.

In its most significant undertaking, the group executed a top-to-bottom rehabilitation of the monument itself, cleaning, repairing and adding interpretative information. Since completion in 2015, more than 50,000 visitors have climbed the 227 marble steps to the summit of the structure, and more than 130,000 people have been to the monument overall.

The need for north and south park area renovations can been seen in the number of trees that have been dying because of poor soil conditions. About 50 out of 110 trees have died since 2010, officials said, despite efforts of arborists to provide treatment. There is no water supply for the parks to irrigate trees and plants, and compacted soil is a deterrent to plant health.

The renovations have been designed by Olin Studio, a renowned urban design firm credited for restoring Bryant Park in New York and the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. among other successful projects.

A rendering of a renovated south Mount Vernon Place after completion of a planned $12 million restoration. Credit: Mount Vernon Place Conservancy.

Baltimore City Councilman Eric Costello, a member of the conservancy board, says the $7 million for park renovations raised from city, state and federal is a reflection of the importance of the area, and that officials are committed to more.

“We’ve made significant progress in one year,” Costello said. “Everyone understands the importance of the monument and that area, and the need for it to be a world class attraction — which it already is.”

Programming and space activation are also important priorities. Since 2019, the group has run the popular Flower Mart event in Mount Vernon Place, after previous organizers backed away.

“We really returned it back to its original mission,” Humphries said. Flower Mart “was started in 1911 by the Women’s Civic League, which is a city beautiful movement about encouraging Clean Cities and gardens and water supplies and that kind of stuff. The original goal of Flower Mart was to encourage the greening of the city by planting flowers and vegetables, in home gardens, as well as planting those on vacant lots in the city, which is pretty amazing, because that’s what people are doing now.”

There are weekly free concerts and movies in the summer, and yoga and fitness boot camps. And this year, for the first time, the conservancy oversaw all operations of the monument lighting. After surveying community members earlier in the year, they provided more information about the location of food vendors and increased their offerings and added multiple beverage serving areas to minimize waits. Feedback has been positive.

“We maintain and run the monument every day of the year, and for us not to be the lead on monument lighting was a missed opportunity for us to talk about what we do and what we need to do for the parks,” said Humphries.

“It is a perfect complement to our mission,” he said. Flower Mart and the monument lighting “are these beautiful bookends of major city traditions — and now, we’re part of the messaging of those programs.”

Achievements in fundraising and renovations “underscore the very reason why a public-private management entity — the conservancy — was created,” said Jack Danna, president of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association and an original signer of the documents creating the group. “The Mount Vernon community is enthusiastic to see firsthand the mighty success of the conservancy and the vision of the Olin Studio restoration plan for Mount Vernon Place come into focus.”

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David Nitkin

David Nitkin is the Executive Editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. He is an award-winning journalist, having worked as State House Bureau Chief, White House Correspondent, Politics Editor and Metropolitan Editor...