A Monumental Past
History repeats itself: At times, those words issue a warning, but in the case of historic Mount Vernon Place’s restoration and renovation, echoing the past appears to be the driving force of its future.
Located at the intersection of North Charles and Monument streets at the first crest up from the harbor in Baltimore City, Mount Vernon Place’s apex is the nearly 200-foot-tall monument to the nation’s first president that has been closed since June 2010. The area, named to honor George Washington’s birthplace, is the city’s first designated historic district and the only place in the city that is a registered national landmark of not just one building, but a whole district.
The monument and the surrounding garden squares to its north, south, east and west have, over the last several decades, fallen into disrepair beyond what the city can support financially or administratively. So a group of citizens came together and formed the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy to restore and renovate part of a neighborhood that greatly impacts the cultural and economic interests of Baltimore and Maryland.
MVPC is the first-ever conservancy to be adopted in Baltimore, though the model has been used across the country with success, explained Andrew Frank, who at the time of its adoption was deputy mayor for neighborhood and economic development and currently serves on the MVPC board. He said that Project for Public Spaces, a New York-based nonprofit that advocates for quality public spaces, was hired to make recommendations for Mount Vernon Place improvements by a group called Friends of Mount Vernon Place. One of the first things recommended was to start the conservancy.
A conservancy is a private group that becomes the steward for a piece of land or other entity; in this case it is the public areas of Mount Vernon Place and does not include the surrounding buildings. A conservancy must work with public entities — within guidelines and regulations — and is usually formed because the city or state does not have the resources for renovation or upkeep. The MVPC board is made up of people from all across Baltimore City and Baltimore County, not just residents of Mount Vernon.
“We will take on the obligation to design, restore and raise the money and maintain the spaces,” said Frank. “It’s modeled after a conservancy in New York, but basically the concept got support from the city, and with other strong partners the conservancy will take [the restoration project] on. [MVPC] is also responsible for the programming, educating, advocating, care and maintenance needed to make these open spaces special and sustainable.”
Cathy Rosenbaum is the marketing and administrative consultant for MVPC. Rosenbaum works closely with all its volunteer board members and committees, especially Lance Humphries, chair of the restoration committee.
Humphries, who loves delving into the past to discover “the world that people made and what they lived in,” left his home state of Michigan for college knowing he wanted to move somewhere “older and with more history.” He chose Virginia, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business, then a master’s and Ph.D. in art history. His dissertation work led him to study a famous Baltimorean, Robert Gilmor Jr.
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Gilmor, known as the first major art collector in this country and one of the first patrons of American artists, is well represented at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Maryland Historical Society, two places Humphries frequented to conduct his research. Gilmor was also the driving force behind creating the George Washington Monument in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon Place, the cornerstone of which was laid on July 4, 1815, 199 years ago this week. It was the first monument in the country built to honor the nation’s first president and the democratic ideals for which he stood.
The honor of placing the monument was not won by the City of Baltimore, but by its residents.
A volunteer “board of managers” made up of about 20 residents and led by Gilmor, petitioned the Maryland Legislature for permission to hold a lottery to pay for the monument.
“So now you have this group of Baltimoreans petitioning the state legislature in 1809, 10 years after [Washington] died, saying, ‘We want to build a monument to honor our first president,’” recounted Humphries. “They got it approved, and they made it happen.”
He added that a monument had been slated for creation after Washington died, but Congress had not followed through on the plans.
“It speaks to cultural development in the U.S., that the first monument of this scale — and this was a huge endeavor — was not a national federally funded project,” explained Humphries.
The residents went on to erect the city’s Battle Monument commemorating the Battle of Baltimore and its impact on the War of 1812. Such a focus on commemorating the past led President John Quincy Adams to give Baltimore the nickname “Monumental City.”
“These were huge civic accomplishments,” noted Humphries.
When about $100,000 was secured from the earmarked lottery, the Washington monument project was awarded to designer Robert Mills, who decades later, designed the nation’s second and larger monument to the first president within view of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
In Mount Vernon Place, the monument is made from white marble extracted from a quarry just north of the city and features a 178-foot Doric column with 228 interior steps. It was completed about 1820, judging from the earliest written records in newspaper accounts of its visitors. In 1829, the 16-foot, 6-inch statue of George Washington, honorably resigning his commission as commander in chief as referenced by the scroll he holds forth in his hand, was completed by Italian sculptor Enrico Causici and hoisted to the top. In the end, like many design and construction projects of its size, building costs crept well over the budgeted amount, and more financing became necessary.
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