At nearly 200 years old, the Phoenix Shot Tower in historic Jonestown is due for some TLC. And after years of waiting on planned renovations and repairs to the historic 215-foot structure, the work is finally set to proceed this summer.
The city’s spending board is preparing to transfer $400,000 in funds to the Department of General Services on Wednesday morning to help finance the renovations. Those will include safety upgrades to the 305-step stairway, like adding new stairs, strengthening railings and enhancing lighting. Other repairs include restoring wood columns and the roof, and some masonry work, like repointing and brick replacement to preserve its exterior.
Sept. 1 is the “ballpark estimate” for when work will begin, said DGS spokesman Ryan Trout.
The city and the tower’s manager, Carroll Museums, have been eyeing these renovations for several years. The Board of Estimates transferred $150,000 for the improvements in 2015, and the state has pitched in $90,000 with a grant from the Maryland Heritage Area Authority. The Carroll Museums also launched a fundraiser to help fund the repairs several years ago.
The city hired Carroll Park-based general contractor Plano Coudon to do the work. Once finished, visitors will be able to access the top of the former shot production facility, which until 1846 was the tallest building in the United States.
Jackson Gilman-Forlini, historic preservation officer for the Baltimore City Department of General Services, said he’s happy to see the work moving forward. “It’s taken us awhile, but we’re finally getting close to starting on this.”
Built in 1828, the tower operated as a production for facility for drop shot, used for small game hunting, for just over six decades, according to Carroll Museums. It was one of four such facilities in Baltimore at the time and is the only one that remains now.
The operation shut down in 1892 after its production method, in which molten lead was poured from the top through colanders to make ammunition, became outmoded.
Officials granted permits for the Phoenix Shot Tower’s demolition in 1921 1924, but locals rallied around the structure and raised money to save it, buying it for $17,000 and giving it to the city to preserve it, according to Matthew Hood, outreach associate for the Carroll Museums. A city inspector also deemed the tower structurally unsafe in 1901, but backed off from pushing for its demolition under pressure from local residents, Hood said.
The tower was designated a national historic landmark in 1973, and made a city-protected historic structure two years later.
Visitors can currently tour the base of the tower, but have not been permitted to climb to the top for years. The Rawlings-Blake administration considered selling it, along with 14 other historic properties located around Baltimore, in 2012, but eventually dropped those plans.
Hood, who’s made the journey to the top, said the apex “really gives you the quintessential Baltimore view.
“When you go up there you see Baltimore today as it is–you see its current successes, you see its failings, you see its glories,” he said. While Federal Hill, by comparison, offers a great view, “the Inner Harbor is a carefully curated, kind of picturesque view of Baltimore. The Shot Tower, there’s no hiding anything.”
Johns Hopkins, executive director of historic preservation nonprofit Baltimore Heritage, said he’s also made the climb. “It’s exhausting, and it’s also just thrilling… You get a sense of what the workers in the shot tower were doing on a daily basis.”
And it’s a spectacle within, he said, with “really beautiful carpentry and symmetry as the steps are going up and up and up and up.” He said tourists who travel far and wide to see and climb lighthouses may experience a similar thrill in reaching the top of a building that, prior to the Civil War, was America’s tallest.
Gilman-Forlini said the tower’s restoration and the resulting ability to offer the chance to access the top should prove to be an asset for Baltimore.
“We see it really as a unique experience, especially for downtown, and it’s the kind of thing that we’re hoping will be able to attract more visitors to downtown—families, tourists who want to experience Baltimore’s history.”
This story has been updated.
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