A monumental opportunity With Washington's Washington Monument closing to visitors for a few months, people will just have to settle for the original -- ours.

January 12, 1998|By KEN FUSON | KEN FUSON,SUN STAFF

The Monumental City has a monumental opportunity.

Beginning today, the famed Washington National Monument in the District of Columbia will close its doors to the public for several months to begin a multimillion-dollar renovation of the 555-foot obelisk.

But tourists turned away during the repair work can still see the Washington Monument. They'll just have to make the 45-minute trip north to Baltimore.

For it is here, in the heart of the city that President John Quincy Adams proclaimed "the Monumental City" in an 1827 toast, where you will find the first Washington Monument -- the 178-foot column atop Mount Vernon.

As familiar a landmark as it is locally, on a national level Baltimore's towering tribute to the first president "definitely falls into 'one of the best-kept secrets' category, which is unfortunate," says Jennifer Morgan, curator of the Baltimore monument for the city's recreation and parks department.

This just might be Baltimore's chance to change all that. The D.C. monument may be bigger and more popular -- 80 times more people visit it each year than the Baltimore counterpart -- but what good is that if the doors are locked?

Terry Adams, a spokesman for the National Park Service, which oversees the D.C. monument, says that even though the total renovation project may take two years, the public is expected to be allowed back inside the obelisk in May. That doesn't give Baltimore much time to act.

"Hmmm, I need to do something with that," Morgan says of the opportunity. "Actually, I just heard about this."

The timing is perfect. The Mount Vernon Cultural District was formed last year by nine institutions in the neighborhood to promote the historical and cultural area as a tourist attraction.

Maybe officials could hand out brochures to crestfallen visitors at the base of the Washington, D.C., memorial.

"That's a great idea," says a laughing Jamie Hunt, executive director of the Mount Vernon district.

For her part, Morgan says not to expect a full-scale marketing blitz. Her promotional budget is limited to the $1 donations visitors are asked to give at Baltimore's Washington Monument. And George Mills, 71, one of the monument's caretakers, says attendance one foggy day last week amounted to a grand total of eight.

"The weather has a lot to do with what you get," he says.

Still, he lets visitors know his monument has a few things on its more famous cousin -- both, by the way, designed by architect Robert Mills.

"Most people think the one in D.C. was the first one," Mills says. "This is the first one."

He's right. Baltimore's monument to the first president was begun in 1815 and completed in 1829. The Washington, D.C., monument wasn't begun until 1848 and finally dedicated in 1884. You might see this as evidence of the sort of bureaucratic wrangling and delays for which Washington is famous, but the Civil War had more to do with it.

When the Baltimore monument was finished, it was described as the first major architectural and civic memorial to Washington in the country.

"Ours used to be a national architectural tourist attraction when it first opened," Morgan says. "I don't know what happened. People stopped coming to Baltimore altogether."

Blame the steps. The D.C. monument has an elevator to take visitors to the top. In Baltimore, you've got to hike the 228 steps to the top. Not everybody minds, though.

"It was great," says Shirley Bergum of Brookings, S.D. "It was gorgeous. It was well worth it."

Bergum and a friend, Alice Wells of Pittsburgh, were in Baltimore with their husbands, who were attending a convention for mathematicians.

"I never dreamed I could walk up there," Wells said.

Those up to the the climb tread on well-worn marble steps, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of bricks that seem to close in on you the higher you go.

At the top there are four alcoves through which to see Baltimore, one facing each compass point, with barred gates (suicide barriers, actually) over the portals. There also is graffiti, some written, some scratched into the marble ages ago.

Bergum remembers one message: All the wonders are in you.

Granted, there are many other tourist wonders in the District of Columbia. There's the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (its most popular monument), the White House and the Lincoln Memorial, for starters. But Morgan still thinks visitors there might be tempted to head north, if only they knew cultural delights awaited them.

"I absolutely do think so," she says. "This is a beautiful neighborhood. There's tons of history."

Besides, she says, "our monument is actually a lot prettier. Theirs is not very attractive inside at all."

National Park Service officials said the D.C. renovation will begin with the installation of a new elevator, air conditioning unit and ventilation equipment. After that, scaffolding and blue screening will blanket the structure as outside work begins. In all, the project is expected to cost more than $9 million.

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