In July 1815, the people of Baltimore laid the cornerstone of the Washington monument on Charles Street in Mount Vernon. The monument, an impressive column honoring George Washington, also functioned as a symbol of American democracy and the country’s independence, which had recently been tested and affirmed, during the War of 1812. Two hundred years later, it’s ready for another coming-out party.
As Baltimore City and the nation evolved, the monument stood tall, providing a reminder of the country’s origins. But with the passage of time and exposure to the elements, the condition of the monument began to deteriorate.
Over the past year and a half, under the guidance of the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, the monument has undergone a comprehensive restoration process. On July 4, the city will honor the 200th anniversary of the beginning of construction with an all-day celebration and a post-restoration rededication of the monument.
Conservancy President Henry H. Hopkins, Development Committee Chair Richard Thomas and Restoration Chair Lance Humphries, along with a larger team of committee members, are dedicated to the dual goals of restoring the monument and the surrounding squares, and raising public awareness of both. The Conservancy was founded in 2008 with these goals in mind.
“The monument has been off the radar for a long time,” said Humphries, noting that outside of the Baltimore area, even serious George Washington enthusiasts are not always aware that the city is home to the original monument built to the country’s first president.
That awareness has already started to pick up, thanks in part to the Conservancy’s digital approach to communication, which includes an attractive website and a Facebook page. On Facebook, more than 8,000 followers receive regular updates related to the restoration process and other Mount Vernon news.
“It’s been a neat thing,” says Humphries. “With Facebook, you can really engage people. People from Baltimore are really proud of this.”
The costs associated with the restoration of the monument will ultimately total between $5.5 and $6 million; efforts associated with the squares of Mount Vernon Place, which were installed in their current formulation starting in 1917, will require more funds. To date, the Conservancy has raised about $8 million, much of which has come from private donors.
Restoring the monument was a significant undertaking, with the committee aiming to bolster the structure’s stability while making sure it looks as close to original as possible. In some cases, that involved removing cosmetic changes that were made over time.
“We’re doing things to try to preserve it into the future,” explains Humphries. That includes repointing all of the stones to minimize water seepage and gentle cleaning. Iron cramps that stitch together large stones are also being replaced with stainless steel that does not rust. On the interior, the electrical system received a complete upgrade. The exterior steps were disassembled, so their treads could be reset, and visitors will now be able to climb the monument’s 227 steps, which have been closed to the public since 2010.
The monument’s finishes, including the iron railing and painted wooden doors, were restored to their original colors. “The iron railing was in horrible condition. It probably had 20 coats of paint, flaking and rusting,” says Humphries. The Conservancy worked with an historical paint analyst to determine the color of the oldest layer. That color, bronze green, was replicated as closely as possible.
Maybe most exciting for future visitors, the newly restored monument will now include a high tech exhibition space with interactive exhibits focused on George Washington, the history of the monument and the two time capsules – one from 1815 and one from 1915 – discovered during the restoration process. (The contents of the time capsules will be on display at the Maryland Historical Society.)
On July 4, the Monumental Bicentennial will celebrate the work, and the monument’s importance, with an all-day party held in the four squares of Mount Vernon. “We’re very excited about this event,” says Faith Millspaugh, co-chair, with Adrianne Carroll, of the Monumental Bicentennial event. The day will begin, at 8:30 a.m., with a naturalization ceremony during which about 40 candidates will become citizens of the United States.
Around 10:30 a.m., a ribbon cutting ceremony will be held, featuring military bands and several speakers discussing the monument, its restoration and supporters, U.S. citizenship and George Washington. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake will be in attendance.
Following the ribbon cutting, a family-friendly day of fun will include food and beverages from some of Baltimore’s favorite restaurants, crafts and games for kids, live music and strolling musicians and actors in historic costume, and the Peabody Institute will be open with music and for tours.
“There’s really something for everyone,” says Millspaugh. “It’s going to be a really fun time – a wonderful, fun day filled with all kinds of activities.”
For more information about the Monumental Bicentennial, visit www.mvpconservancy.org or www.facebook.com/mountvernonplace.
This article was updated at 2:30 p.m. on 6.20.15.
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