From its cavernous subterranean vault, Baltimore's Washington Monument seems every bit its nearly 200 years.
Plaster chips and crumbles to the touch. Mortar sealing together thousands of bricks and stones is deteriorating into sand. A mildewy odor fills the air.
But historians and architects have a $5 million plan to repair the pillar that was closed to the public three years ago for safety reasons. They expect it to reopen for tours — and a panoramic view of the city from 178 feet above Charles Street — for its bicentennial on Independence Day, 2015.
By January, scaffolding will begin to enclose the monument for repairs from decades of water damage to the marble, stones and bricks. Plans call for the mildew and moss to be scrubbed clean, new electrical and lighting systems to be installed, and the cast-iron fence to be hauled away, recast and repainted its original dark green.
With a thorough cleaning and repairs, the monument could again help lure tourists to Mount Vernon and bolster surrounding businesses, officials say.
"It's a building; it's supposed to be experienced," said Lance Humphries, chairman of the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy restoration committee.
The monument — whose construction was authorized by the General Assembly with money from a special lottery — was closed to the public in 2010 after an engineering study commissioned by the conservancy declared it unsafe. The study found that water leaks had weakened the structure by rusting metal support brackets and hollowing out mortar.
Over the last two centuries, Mount Vernon has grown up around the monument, which was built at what was then the edge of the city on wooded land donated by Revolutionary War Col. John Eager Howard. The area that surrounds it is home to the First Thursday concert series, FlowerMart and the monument lighting, a holiday tradition since the 1970s that is expected to continue through the renovations.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who remembers racing up the monument's 228 steps as a child, calls it "an iconic place in the city that holds a lot of memories for people. It is the center of the Mount Vernon cultural area. I think it will be a welcome return of something that kids and families love to enjoy.
"We have a lot of quirky, unique things about Baltimore, and I think the monument and that experience is one."
Leading the renovation project is the nonprofit conservancy — the first public-private partnership of its kind in Baltimore.
The organization, established in 2008 for the upkeep and restoration of the monument and surrounding squares, follows a model used in other cities. A similar entity runs New York's Central Park and oversaw the Statue of Liberty's recent restoration.
"As public dollars become more scarce, we have to be more creative about how we take care of places that matter," said John Hildreth, regional vice president for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
In the last several years, cash-strapped Baltimore has entered into similar agreements with private entities for the operation of the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, as well as the renovation of the circa-1803 Clifton Mansion and the 141-year-old home of Druid Hill Park's superintendent.
Repairing the Washington Monument will boost the neighborhood's vitality, Hildreth predicted. "When it's restored and people see the obvious investment made and that people care about it and its upkeep is maintained, that has a ripple effect in that whole area. People want to come visit a place that local people care about," he said.
Humphries said the conservancy wants to return the monument to its past prominence in Baltimore tourism. Although information on the number of annual visitors is hard to come by, a guest book from 2008 shows visitors from Canada, Europe, Australia, South America and Asia, he said.
The monument, which was Baltimore's leading tourist attraction in the first half of the 19th century, continued to draw as many as 12,000 people annually in the 1980s.
Jorge Echeverri and his extended family made the trip downtown last week after flying from their home in Sarasota, Fla., for the Army Ten-Miler in the nation's capital.
They paused for a photo in front of the statue of 19th-century Baltimore lawyer Severn Teackle Wallis in the east square, with the monument towering in the background. Echeverri said they saw the monument as they were driving through the city and parked to get a closer look.
"We never stopped by in Baltimore, and you have a lot of history, so we said, 'Well, it would be nice to know what Baltimore is about and the history and all the monuments,' " Echeverri said. "Everything started in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, so it is good to have that reference firsthand."
His 12-year-old niece, Andrea Velasquez, is studying civics in the seventh grade, and the visit complements what's she's reading about, Echeverri said.
"At first I thought it was so old and rusty and I thought it was weird, but I came here and was like, 'Whoa, it has a lot of history to it,' " Andrea said.
Glenn Wilson, seated on a nearby bench, had a different view. Wilson, who lost his job in retail and recently moved into a homeless shelter, said he appreciates the beauty of Mount Vernon but struggles to understand the decision to spend so much money on its upkeep when so many people are suffering.
"I hate to sound cynical — it's good that it's there — I think interest is probably waning on coming down to see it, and definitely you're going to get a lot of different opinions on whether it should be restored at [what] it's going to cost," said Wilson, had stopped to eat an apple before walking to the library to research a job advertised at Safeway.
The conservancy raised nearly $4 million for the monument's restoration — $2 million in state funds and $2 million in donations from individuals, foundations and businesses, Humphries said. The group wants to secure another $1 million in commitments in the next two months, he said.
The city also has provided $1 million toward the Mount Vernon Place upgrades, but Humphries said the conservancy is sorting out how much might be available to use on the monument itself.
The conservancy will continue oversight of the monument once the repairs are complete, but hasn't been determined whether to charge admission, which would have to be approved by the city.
Whether the public will have access to the terrace atop the monument's museum is also in question.
The top parapet has been restricted to a window view after a series of suicides, including the final one involving a 27-year-old woman who jumped to her death in 1938. The vista reveals a panorama of Baltimore landmarks: the Shot Tower, the St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, the public schools' headquarters on North Avenue and Old Town Mall. On a clear day, the view also extends to the cranes operating in the port of Baltimore, the Johns Hopkins Hospital and the state office complex on West Preston Street in Madison Park.
Overall, the conservancy's master plan for improvements to the monument and the four surrounding public squares is projected to cost $12 million.
That plan received criticism over a provision that calls for more than 100 mature trees to be cut down and replaced with as many younger trees, but the city has called on the conservancy to come up with an alternative to the wholesale removal. The tree roots have wreaked havoc on nearby drainage pipes and regularly cause the fountains on the squares to clog, according to the conservancy.
Baltimore's memorial is the first civic monument to Washington and the first major architectural monument of any kind in the United States. A tower built in honor of the nation's first president was erected in 1827 on South Mountain near Boonsboro in Western Maryland.
"When it was begun in July of 1815, Baltimoreans had just been victorious in the Battle of Baltimore the previous fall, and they were incredibly proud having just played this role in winning the War of 1812," Humphries said.
Both the Washington and Baltimore monuments were designed by Robert Mills, an architect and engineer from Charleston, S.C. The 555-foot column
in Washington — which is undergoing repairs after being damaged by an earthquake and hurricane — wasn't started until 1848, about 20 years after Baltimore's was complete.
Humphries, an art and architectural historian, said significant upkeep is required on such aging structures about four times a century. The monument underwent $314,000 renovations and lead abatement in 1992 and $100,000 in repairs a decade earlier to fix leaks in the basement, clean and repoint the 16-ton statue of Washington atop the pillar
pill, and install a new lightning rod system.
For the latest repairs, some stones must be reset, iron clamps replaced, and the structure made watertight, Humphries said. Most of the work involves protecting the marble, which is from two Baltimore County quarries.
"There is a lot of damage to the stone work from over time, and a lot of the mortar is missing," Humphries said. "As the mortar is lost, water gets into the building. As water get into the building, it starts to destroy the interior finishes and the stability of the structure."
Owings Mills-based Lewis Contractors was selected through a competitive bid process to lead the restoration. The company has worked on more than a dozen local historic landmarks, including the Baltimore Basilica on Cathedral Street and Everyman Theatre on West Fayette Street.
Tyler Tate, president of Lewis Contractors, and Brian Washburn, project manager, said the restoration calls for various skilled craftsman, including those who specialize in the ancient technique of Roman cement, used in the monument's museum area, which wraps around its base.
The trick is to find qualified craftsmen to replicate the original work while accommodating modern necessities such as lighting. They need stone restoration masons rather than regular masons, and wrought-iron specialists rather than metal shop workers, he said.
"There is always a great deal of craft in historic restoration, and when you are approaching a historic restoration project, you approach it with an understanding that your experience and your expertise are going to be brought to bear," Tate said. "No two restoration projects are the same."
Stephanie Guinosso studied a pile of papers near the monument on a recent day to prepare for an exam at the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. She lived in Mount Vernon before moving to California to finish her dissertation but never had much time to enjoy it.
"I have this exam, and it feels like the most peaceful place in the city," Guinosso said. "Last night, I was walking through with the monument against the clouds and the sunset — it's truly beautiful.
"It's nice to celebrate the beauty and the history and that's what this space does."
Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
Washington Monument trivia
Construction: The cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1815 and construction continued until Nov. 25, 1829, when the final portion of the statue of George Washington was placed atop the column.
Standing tall: The statue that depicts Washington resigning his commission in Annapolis was hoisted into place using a system of pulleys, levers and braces designed by a Navy captain. The column was originally to be topped with Washington, dressed as a Roman warrior, riding in a chariot drawn by four horses.
By the numbers: The monument stands 178 feet tall, including the 161/2-foot-high, 16-ton statue of Washington. The exterior is made up of more than 3,800 stones, including marble from two Baltimore County quarries. Inside, the walls are 4 feet thick.
Cost: A lottery created to fund construction raised $113,000, but the state had to contribute more money to finish the project.
Controversy: On the western base wall, an inscription says Washington's presidency began on March 4, 1789, but he didn't take the oath of office until April 30.
Vandalism: The stairwell on the inside of the pillar was painted pink in 1954 to discourage lipstick graffiti.
Mystery: No one knows where the cornerstone is buried. Among the items inside are a picture of Washington, a copy of his farewell address, local newspapers and coins.
"The Monumental City": President John Quincy Adams coined this nickname for Baltimore in a banquet toast he gave here on Oct. 16, 1827.
Dark side: At least four men and four women have jumped to their death from the monument, including Georgia E. Conaway on Feb. 19, 1938 (newspaper accounts said the 27-year-old had just returned books to the library). Metal grilles, and later windows, were added to block access to the top parapet.
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Source: The Baltimore Sun archives, Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, Peale Museum.