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Restoring Mount Vernon

Baltimore's Washington Monument in Mount Vernon Square is one of the city's most recognizable landmarks, a classical Doric column towering 178 feet above its elegant surroundings. But nearly 200 years after its completion in 1829, the building and its grounds are showing their age, and the city can't afford their upkeep. That's why an agreement signed last month between the Board of Estimates and the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, a private group formed to raise money and plan for architectural repairs and improvements on the site, may be the only way to preserve this iconic structure for future generations.

The arrangement will create the first public-private partnership in the city's history charged with managing a public park. Like similar organizations elsewhere, such as New York's Central Park Conservancy, the Baltimore group will be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the monument and its surrounding gardens, as well as for structural repairs to the building and site upgrades such as replanting trees and flower beds, repairing the marble balustrades along the steps and installing new benches, sidewalks and other amenities.

The Mount Vernon Place Conservancy has already raised about half the $12 million it estimates will be needed to complete the renovations, If all goes as planned, the monument could reopen to the public — it's currently closed for repairs — by 2014. That would be just in time for the bicentennial celebration of Baltimore's role in the historic battle that led to the British defeat in the War of 1812.

The history of the monument, made of white marble from Cockeysville, tracks the growth of the city it has come to symbolize. Conceived as a tribute to the nation's first president, the cornerstone of the tower was laid in 1815 on land donated by John Eager Howard, a Revolutionary War hero and former senator and governor of Maryland. Architect Robert Mills, who also designed the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., sketched out a grassy plain enclosing his structure, but it wasn't until later in the century that famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead created the four formal parks around the tower's base. Mills' original scheme was updated again shortly after World War I, when the New York firm Carrere & Hastings redesigned the gardens along the lines we see today.

In recent years the monument has suffered some of the indignities of advancing age. An inspection in 2009 revealed structural weaknesses in the braces holding up the balcony beneath the tower's cupola, causing officials to close the building the following year for safety reasons. In 2010, a driver smashed his vehicle into the fence around the building's southeast corner, damaging a roughly 15-foot section of the elegant wrought-iron barrier Mills had added to the structure in 1838. City officials patched up the spot with a serviceable but architecturally undistinguished chain-link fence until funds for a more historically accurate replacement are available.

These and other projects will be the first order of business for the new public-private partnership in Mount Vernon. But a spokesperson for the conservancy expressed confidence that such problems can be overcome and that the monument and its grounds will once again take their place among the crown jewels of Baltimore's rich architectural legacy.

There are some caveats to the story. Although the group has had some noted successes in private fund-raising, much of its money has come from various government grants. A truly sustainable effort to maintain the monument and its grounds will need the support of individual and corporate donors. In addition, the conservancy did a poor job of building public consensus for its plan to replace many of the trees in the park. Nonetheless, the city can certainly use the imagination, energy, enthusiasm and money of such citizen-preservationists in its effort to preserve the Washington Monument's legacy, and if the Mount Vernon group is successful its example could serve as a model for similar public-private partnerships to care for neglected parks and historical landmarks throughout the city.

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