Baltimore's oldest Columbus monument regains status

May 21, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

In an odd twist of history and hoopla, Baltimore's 200-year-old monument to Christopher Columbus, the first of its kind in North America, is about to regain its status -- again.

Shoved into obscurity by the excitement over a new Columbus statue in Little Italy in 1984, the monument had been ignored in plans for this year's celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Great Navigator's voyage of discovery.

But no longer, says former Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro 3rd, general chairman of the Mayor's Columbus Day Parade.

The obelisk, first erected in 1792 in the gardens of a then-Baltimore County estate, will regain the respect it once enjoyed, he vows.

"I'd forgotten all about it," Mr. D'Alesandro says. "We'll definitely do something with it; we'll have the Italian-American organizations hold a wreath-laying ceremony there."

Ann Hartman, executive director of the Governor's Commission for Maryland 1992, says she was unaware of the monument, and it is not included in commission plans.

"That's because they have the wrong people on the commission," chides Samuel A. Culotta, a Baltimore lawyer who is past president of the Sons of Italy and active in Italian-American affairs. "It's the oldest monument and we should never let things like that slip away."

The obelisk has a history of elusiveness. One 1930s newspaper account noted: "The monument has played a weird game of hide and seek from the public. It has completely disappeared from public consciousness so far as any available records show, only to bob up and down again."

For many years, the monument was thought to have been built in honor of a horse. The error was repeated by J. Thomas Scharf in his monumental 1881 history of the city and Baltimore County despite news accounts of 1792 that it was built in honor of the explorer.

Baltimore has three Columbus monuments. In addition to the 1792 and 1984 monuments is the statue put up in 1892 by the Italian community, which overlooks Druid Lake.

Baltimore is probably the only city in the world with so many Columbus monuments, Mr. Culotta says. "I don't think even Genoa [Italy] has three.

"They should take a run around all three of them on Columbus Day," he says. "It shows the interest in Columbus in our community."

Of the three monuments, the obelisk is the oldest. It was erected by a Frenchman, the Chevalier d'Anemours or d'Anmour, at Belmont, his 50-acre estate near Harford Road and North Avenue, then the city's northern boundary.

Although the city and county separated politically in 1854, the monument remained in Baltimore County until 1888, when the city annexed the area.

The Chevalier -- France's first post-Revolutionary representative in Baltimore -- reportedly admired Columbus' exploits. When guests came to Belmont, a gathering place for the local aristocracy, and commented on the absence of any monument to the explorer in the new United States, the Chevalier tried to rectify it.

On Aug. 3, 1792 -- the 300th anniversary of the sailing of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria from Palos, Spain -- he unveiled the 44-foot obelisk, brick covered with stucco. It was dedicated on Oct. 12, the date of the explorer's New World landfall.

A marble inset reads:

Sacred/to the/Memory/of/Chris. Columbus/Octob. XII/MDCC VIIIC

Because the monument was on private property, it remained unknown to the public for decades. As the estate passed through several hands and lapsed into ruin, the obelisk eventually was forgotten.

North Avenue became a public thoroughfare in 1876.

Sometime later, a group of Johns Hopkins students exploring the woods stumbled across the obelisk. Its last previous known sighting had occurred in 1863 when Union soldiers at Belmont found it while cutting trees for firewood and fortifications. Woods reclaimed the area after the Civil War.

In 1887, Belmont became the Samuel B. Ready School. It moved to West Baltimore in 1938 to make way for Sears Roebuck's huge store, which is now the Eastside District Court.

The obelisk, considered too fragile to be moved, was left behind on what

became a Sears parking lot.

In 1963, however, the city moved it to its present location in a grove of maples, pines and arbor vitae on Harford Road at Parkside Drive.

It was the focus of traditional Columbus Day ceremonies until 1977, when the festivities were moved to East Baltimore and then to the Inner Harbor.

The old monument drifted farther from public consciousness after October 1984, when President Ronald Reagan dedicated a new statue of the Great Explorer in a plaza at the edge of Little Italy.

But the obelisk has refused to be ignored throughout its history. Now, it has bobbed up again during the 500th anniversary of Columbus' achievements, say Mr. D'Alesandro and Mr. Culotta. And very appropriately, they add.

After all, they say, the monument was North America's first recognition of Columbus' voyage, and another two centuries have elapsed since then.

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