Preservationist paved way for Washington Monument repairs in 1970s

William Boulton "Bo" Kelly Jr., the Baltimore architect, preservationist and raconteur, led a study in the late 1970s of the Washington Monument, the first civic monument erected to the nation's first president, and perhaps the most emblematic symbol of the city.

Kelly died this month at the age of 84 and didn't see the completion of the latest overhaul of the monument, which is currently closed.


Kelly had developed a solid reputation as a preservationist when he helped establish Baltimore Heritage in 1960 and, four years later, the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, serving as its first chairman.

And when the wrecking ball threatened Bolton Hill in the 1960s, he led the way in getting the area with 700 properties bounded by North Avenue, Mount Royal Avenue, Eutaw Place and Dolphin Street declared a historic district patterned after the Mount Vernon historic district.


While Kelly was an ardent preservationist, he was also a proponent of the Modernist style of architecture, with a number of the buildings he designed reflecting that architectural interest.

"He reminded me of what F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote," said Walter G. Schamu, a longtime friend who is a partner in the Baltimore firm of Schamu, Machowski, Greco Architects. "'The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.'"

It wasn't just endangered buildings that Kelly cared and worried about; he was also concerned about monuments. By early 1979, in a report to the city Parks Board, he said that the Washington Monument was in dire need of an estimated $700,000 in repairs.

Kelly said the monument needed cleaning, patching, sealing, painting and other repairs necessitated by years of exposure to weather, industrial smoke and exhaust fumes.

He did report that the 14-foot statue of Washington, which weighs 17 tons and stares down Charles Street from what was originally called Howard's Hill, was none the worse for wear since it was hoisted into place on top of the 178-foot monument on Nov. 25, 1829.

Also, after absorbing 150 years of horse and motor traffic around its base, and with a couple of earthquakes thrown in, there had been no settlement of the structure whatsoever.

But the accumulated dirt and grime had dimmed the luster of the snowy white marble, and Kelly suggested that it be steam-cleaned and all exterior cracks sealed with an epoxy compound to keep water out.

I remember Kelly telling me that he had enlisted the services of a helicopter in order to make a photographic study of its upper reaches, which for walkers is reached by corkscrewing up 228 stairs.


There was real concern in 1829 about getting the Washington statue to its perch by a series of pulleys, levers and braces, but it was accomplished without incident, and for the past 183 years it has kept watch over Baltimore.

Kelly also turned up the arcane fact that on the day of its dedication, an eagle soared over the monument.

"Clouds broke and the statue was spotlighted by the sun's rays," reads a contemporary account that Kelly had discovered.

The monument reopened after a $314,000 renovation in 1992, and remained open until closing again in 2010 because of safety concerns.

In a 1979 article for The Evening Sun, Kelly related the tale that when Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., physician, writer and author of "The Autocrat of The Breakfast-Table," visited Baltimore in 1859, he declared Baltimore the "gastronomic metropolis of the Union."

Standing looking at the monument, Holmes was reported to have asked, "Why don't you put a canvasback duck on top of Washington's column? Why don't you get that lady off the Battle Monument and plant a terrapin in her place?"


"No renaissance in Baltimore will be complete without a revival of the Washington Monument's symbolic and physical health," wrote Kelly.

It was a typically trenchant Kelly observation. True then, and true now.