Baltimore's Washington Monument closed after engineering firm finds flaws

June 04, 2010|By Edward Gunts, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore's Washington Monument, the first civic monument to the nation's first president, has been closed to the public until further notice because of safety concerns.

Public officials closed the midtown landmark Friday "as a precaution to citizens," according to Cathy Powell, a spokeswoman for Baltimore's Department of General Services. Powell and Gwendolyn Burrell, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Recreation and Parks, said they could not say when the monument will reopen.

The closing came after city officials received an engineering study warning that visitors shouldn't be allowed to venture onto the balcony at the top of the marble monument until repairs are made to the stonework there. According to the report, mortar is missing and metal support brackets are rusting.

The report, commissioned by the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy and undertaken by CVM Engineering of Philadelphia, also recommended that city employees not go on the balcony unless they are secured by a safety harness.

The closing marks the first time in nearly two decades that the 178-foot-tall monument has been off limits to the public.

In 1992, the city-owned monument reopened after a $314,000 renovation. Since then, visitors have been able to tour an exhibit about George Washington at the base and climb 228 steps to the top and look out over the city. Designed by architect Robert Mills, the monument was constructed between 1815 and 1829, decades before the more famous Washington Monument by Mills opened in the nation's capital.

There is no admission fee, and city officials don't track how many people climb to the top every year. A city park ranger monitored the building when it opened on weekends and other occasions, such as the 'First Thursday' concerts in the adjoining park.

The Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, a private, nonprofit group, paid for the engineering study as part of a $200,000 master plan to guide restoration of the Charles Street monument and the four public squares surrounding it.

The conservancy has been working with city agencies this spring to complete plans for the area and launch a public fund drive to pay for the work. The engineering report on the monument's condition was forwarded to the city several months ago.

Conservancy representatives told community residents in April that they hope to raise $12 million to $15 million to pay for improvements throughout the park that the financially strapped city cannot afford to make.

As part of the planning effort, led by the landscape architecture and urban design firm Olin Partnership of Philadelphia, engineers used a crane to inspect the monument's exterior last fall. Although they found it generally in good condition, they expressed concern about the condition of the marble parapet at the top.

According to Lance Humphries, an art and architectural historian who lives in Mount Vernon and serves as chairman of the conservancy's restoration committee, the engineers noticed that mortar between the marble slabs is missing and that metal brackets supporting the marble were exposed and rusted, a sign that they should be replaced.

The engineers said the monument structure is not in danger of immediate failure but recommended that the city prohibit people from walking out on the balcony. They didn't express concerns about any threat to vehicles or pedestrians traveling around the base of the monument.

The cost of repairing the marble parapet could be between $50,000 to $100,000, plus another $200,000 to erect scaffolding to give masons access to the top, according to the engineers. The total estimated cost of all recommended monument repairs, including repointing the entire shaft, is about $1 million.

The monument was open to the public on Thursday evening, when visitors were allowed to climb to the top during a 'First Thursday' concert in the west park of Mount Vernon Place.

At the time, Humphries said, he was eating dinner outside at Donna's cafe, one block north of the monument, and noticed people at the top of the monument. He said he became concerned that the city was still allowing visitors to step out on the balcony after engineers warned that access should be restricted.

Humphries said he e-mailed city officials when he got home Thursday night, including planning director Tom Stosur and parks director Gregory Bayor. The monument was closed the next day.

Powell and Burrell said they could not confirm that the closing was linked to Humphries' e-mails.

Karen Footner, a fundraising consultant to the conservancy, said it is unfortunate that visitors won't be able to go into the monument while it is undergoing repairs. But she said the monument was closed to protect the public and that the closing underscores the need for the improvements that the conservancy is seeking to implement.

"It may be disappointing for some people, but it's for a good reason," she said. "We have a very sophisticated plan that's going to lead to a skillful restoration. When it reopens, it's going to be the city's gem. It's going to be spectacular."

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