Once again, monument visitors can scale historical heights BALTIMORE CITY

December 04, 1992|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

"Gene" climbed to the top of Baltimore's Washington Monument on 6-11-59.

Betty Snyder and Ray Filbey made the trip a few years later. So did L. S. and J. J., who loved each other very much judging by the size of the heart they carved in stone around their initials.

Now, for the first time in eight years, everyone will be able to join the hardy souls who left their marks years ago atop the nation's first civic monument to George Washington.

After a $314,000 restoration effort that included removing peeling lead paint and all but the most tenacious graffiti, the 178-foot-tall shaft will be reopened to the public in a 5:30 p.m. ceremony today.

The attraction is expected to draw a new generation of visitors eager to view the Monumental City from a small chamber just below Enrico Causici's statue of George Washington, which bears a strong resemblance to actor James Cagney.

It is the centerpiece of a $2 million refurbishment of historic Mount Vernon Place that was launched in the mid-1980s by the city government and a private group called Friends of Mount Vernon.

"In 1809 the city fathers were excited enough about the future of the city that they wanted to erect a monument to their leader," said Connie Caplan, a real estate executive who heads the group. "What we're doing today is rediscovering our past."

The monument looks much as it did in the 19th century, when writer Henry James likened it to a large antique clock sitting in the city's "parlour," silently witnessing the passage of time.

Designed by Robert Mills, the Mount Vernon landmark was constructed from 1815 to 1829 and cost $200,000. Officials closed it in 1985 so crews could remove lead paint inside, but the job took longer than expected because the city ran out of money and had to raise more.

Today's festivities coincide with the annual lighting of the monument and will include free tours of the monument until 8 p.m.

Starting tomorrow, admission will be $1 per person. Visitors will be able to climb all 228 steps to the top and tour a new exhibit at the base that commemorates the monument's construction.

During a preview Tuesday, the absence of height markings inside the windowless shaft caused more than a few out-of-breath climbers to pause midway up the winding stairs.

Many seemed to be contemplating which choice would be more painful -- venture to the top and then rest, or turn back and miss the view.

"This is better than a StairMaster [exercise machine]," quipped one tuxedo-clad climber. "I think I'm going to black out," wheezed another.

The exhibit was designed by Rebecca Swanston and Alex Castro. Dean Krimmel, curator of local history for the Baltimore City Life Museums, organized the materials. Color photographs by Neil Meyerhoff show bird's-eye views from the top.

Inside eight niches around the base's outer walls are drawings, prints and artifacts that shed light on subjects such as the 1813 monument design competition and the lottery held to fund construction.

Objects on display include a coin-sized medal bearing George Washington's likeness and the replica of a sword he carried at his inauguration. They were donated by Lutherville residents Donald and Patience Fritz.

"There were only 1,000 reproduction swords made by the U.S. Historical Society," Mr. Fritz said. "We had it in our den and thought if it were put on display, thousands of people might enjoy it.

"It's very satisfying," he added, looking at the sword on display. "Both my wife and I climbed up here in our youth."

In all, the city has spent $1.4 million on Mount Vernon park lighting, landscaping and other improvements.

The private sector has donated $325,000.

"It was so needed," said architectural historian Phoebe Stanton. "Here is this major, major piece of architecture. For the city to invest what amounts to such a modest sum to make it lovely, it's such a wonderful thing.

"I think it could become a major tourist attraction," said former city housing commissioner Marion Pines, who helped provide much of the seed money for the park restoration. "Connie [Caplan] deserves a lot of credit for hanging in with it."

MONUMENT REOPENS

Where: Mount Vernon Place, Charles and Monument streets, Baltimore.

When: 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. today; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. thereafter, Wednesdays through Sundays

Cost: Free today; $1 per person thereafter.

Information: Downtown Partnership, 244-1030.

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