Thursday night, we celebrate the season with the lighting of Baltimore's Washington Monument. But unless we take needed action, we are at risk of losing this festive tradition — along with one of our city's most iconic landmarks.
Sadly, the monument has fallen into disrepair and is in serious need of attention due to years of exposure to the elements. It has been closed for safety reasons since June 2010. If we fail to meet the challenge of restoring it, the nation's first monument to George Washington will accelerate its perilous decline and could forever go dark.
But we can meet the challenge of saving the monument and honoring our founding president, who for generations has personified the ideals of American democracy. And in doing so, we will join other generations of Baltimore citizens who have fought to improve our city, our state and our country.
Through a public-private partnership backed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy is dedicated to the restoration, maintenance and management of Mount Vernon Place, a National Historic Landmark District (a federal designation granted to places that "possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States").
The Washington Monument in Mount Vernon Place is a signature piece in the mosaic that defines Baltimore. It was boldly begun by our fair city on the Fourth of July, 1815, to honor George Washington at the very time it was celebrating key victories by land and by sea in the War of 1812. Justly proud of their decisive role in again securing American independence from Britain during the Battle of Baltimore, Baltimoreans were both humbled and proud that theirs was the first city to commence a monument in Washington's memory.
The column was completed in 1829 when the statue, depicting Washington resigning his commission as commander of chief of the Continental Army at the Maryland State House in Annapolis, was raised to its pinnacle.
Within several years, the four park squares were laid out into the form we know today, a remarkable achievement in urban planning. By the mid-nineteenth century, Mount Vernon Place and the surrounding neighborhood were viewed as the cultural and educational center of the city, where handsome mansions were erected by some of the most notable philanthropists. Mount Vernon Place, in turn, has helped spawn and nurture the culture of our city: the Peabody Institute, the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore School for the Arts, Center Stage and, not far away, the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Over time, the squares of Mount Vernon Place have been refashioned, often with the goal of reaffirming the ideals of the American democracy and freedom inherent in a monument to Washington. The current design by Carrere & Hastings was commenced in 1917 in order to install a statue of the Marquis de Lafayette, who came to the assistance of the American Colonies during the American Revolution just as the United States was doing, at the time, to assist France against the invading German army in World War I.
Now, with this national treasure in need of significant restoration and infrastructure improvements, it is up to us to help meet the goal of making Mount Vernon Place a world class cultural attraction.
The Conservancy's first focus of a multi-year project for Mount Vernon Place will be the monument's restoration. This effort will require a substantial investment to preserve it for its third century. Unstable stones must be reset, damaged pieces repaired, the whole structure made water tight, and the perimeter fence disassembled and cleaned, with broken pieces recast and put back in place. The cost of this initial phase will be $3 million, of which $1.5 million has already been raised. We are working with the state, city and the community along with its leaders, and while great progress has made, much more needs to be done.
The Washington Monument is more than an architectural or sculptural treasure; it is symbolic of our city — a defining landmark that must be preserved. If we do not take action now, the structure will continue to erode along with its meaning and symbolism. I hope the citizens of Baltimore and others elsewhere will join me in supporting the restoration of this important American icon.
Mark R. Fetting, the former chairman and CEO of Legg Mason Inc., is a founding board member and vice president of Mount Vernon Place Conservancy Inc. (www.mvpcbalt.org).