Monument's reopening a wonderful gift MEMORABLE MOMENTS

December 27, 1992|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

Could Baltimore have given itself a more delightful present this year than the reopening of the Washington Monument?

Other works of architecture may have cost more (the Commerce Place office tower) or taken up more land (the graceful new light-rail stations) or generated more hoopla (Oriole Park at Camden Yards). Some made terrific new homes for their occupants, including the Baltimore Urban League's restoration of Orchard Street Church and the Maryland Institute's student housing in Bolton Hill.

But for sheer civic serendipity, nothing compared to the magical few moments earlier this month when fireworks lighted up the night sky over Mount Vernon Place and hundreds crowded around to see the results of an eight-year, $314,000 restoration of this timeless municipal icon -- Baltimore's holiday gift to itself.

More than a one-time event, though, the monument's reopening is a lasting and heroic architectural achievement. Closed in 1985 lead paint could be removed, the monument reopened as the centerpiece of a $2 million refurbishment of Mount Vernon Place, a joint effort of the city government, Downtown Partnership and a private group called Friends of Mount Vernon.

Climbing those 228 steps

For the first time in years, visitors can once again climb 228 steps to the top for a panoramic view of the city below. As part of the restoration, the base of the 1829 landmark was transformed to a museum-quality display space that tells the story of the building's construction and the impact it has had on Baltimore. In a sense, it marks a completion of the 178-foot-tall monument, with exhibits that celebrate the city as well as the nation's first president.

Many will argue, of course, that the monument's reopening was not nearly as significant in the long run as the debut of Oriole Park. No argument here. No project has been designed as well or had as much impact on Baltimore since Harborplace and the National Aquarium opened more than a decade ago.

But there was so much buildup for Baltimore's new-fangled, old-fashioned ballpark that it had to be stupendous just to deserve the advance attention it received -- and fortunately it was. What was so remarkable about the monument's reopening is that, except for those who worked on it, the event seemed to come out of nowhere, and just in time for the holidays.

The ceremony itself was a visual feast, with fireworks cascading from the monument's base and top like champagne bubbling from a bottle. More than 1,000 people gathered for the extravaganza, and many stood in line for an hour or more to climb to the top.

The long trip up the winding stairs is still the same, although the interior of the windowless shaft has been scrubbed clean of some memorable graffiti. The chief difference is at the base, once a dark, musty space that contained little to hold one's interest. In place of the peeling paint is a faux stone finish, and new lights shine from above. Niches around the perimeter have been enclosed in glass and filled with drawings, prints and artifacts that highlight various aspects of the monument's construction, such as the competition sponsored to select a design and the lottery held to fund it. Photomurals by Neil Meyerhoff round out the base-level attractions.

Much of the credit for this exquisite restoration goes to designers Rebecca Swanston and Alex Castro, curator Dean Krimmel of the Baltimore City Life Museums and project director Jennifer Morgan. With the lowest of budgets, they created a space that represents the highest in quality. It's a fitting )R companion to the Walters Art Gallery, Peabody Library and other well-preserved landmarks around Mount Vernon Place.

Pure Baltimore

Now that the monument has reopened for five days a week (from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, except Mondays and Tuesdays) the city's challenge is to make sure public enthusiasm doesn't wane. There are three main reasons why the monument has a fighting chance for a good long run in Mount Vernon:

* It's a nostalgia trip. The restored monument is part of a trend in which new and restored buildings are helping people rediscover their past, real or imagined. Just as Oriole Park at Camden Yards taps into shared feelings about old-fashioned ballparks, the Washington Monument symbolizes an era when Baltimore was a world beater, with leaders so confident in the city's future that they wanted it to be the first to erect a formal tribute to the father of the country. Nearly everyone who grew up in Baltimore has a story about climbing up on a school field trip or date, and many have saved old photographs or sketches made from the top.

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