From its cavernous subterranean vault, Baltimore's Washington Monument seems every bit its nearly 200 years.
Plaster chips and crumbles to the touch. Mortar sealing together thousands of bricks and stones is deteriorating into sand. A mildewy odor fills the air.
But historians and architects have a $5 million plan to repair the pillar that was closed to the public three years ago for safety reasons. They expect it to reopen for tours — and a panoramic view of the city from 178 feet above Charles Street — for its bicentennial on Independence Day, 2015.
By January, scaffolding will begin to enclose the monument for repairs from decades of water damage to the marble, stones and bricks. Plans call for the mildew and moss to be scrubbed clean, new electrical and lighting systems to be installed, and the cast-iron fence to be hauled away, recast and repainted its original dark green.
With a thorough cleaning and repairs, the monument could again help lure tourists to Mount Vernon and bolster surrounding businesses, officials say.
"It's a building; it's supposed to be experienced," said Lance Humphries, chairman of the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy restoration committee.
The monument — whose construction was authorized by the General Assembly with money from a special lottery — was closed to the public in 2010 after an engineering study commissioned by the conservancy declared it unsafe. The study found that water leaks had weakened the structure by rusting metal support brackets and hollowing out mortar.
Over the last two centuries, Mount Vernon has grown up around the monument, which was built at what was then the edge of the city on wooded land donated by Revolutionary War Col. John Eager Howard. The area that surrounds it is home to the First Thursday concert series, FlowerMart and the monument lighting, a holiday tradition since the 1970s that is expected to continue through the renovations.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who remembers racing up the monument's 228 steps as a child, calls it "an iconic place in the city that holds a lot of memories for people. It is the center of the Mount Vernon cultural area. I think it will be a welcome return of something that kids and families love to enjoy.
"We have a lot of quirky, unique things about Baltimore, and I think the monument and that experience is one."
Leading the renovation project is the nonprofit conservancy — the first public-private partnership of its kind in Baltimore.
The organization, established in 2008 for the upkeep and restoration of the monument and surrounding squares, follows a model used in other cities. A similar entity runs New York's Central Park and oversaw the Statue of Liberty's recent restoration.
"As public dollars become more scarce, we have to be more creative about how we take care of places that matter," said John Hildreth, regional vice president for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
In the last several years, cash-strapped Baltimore has entered into similar agreements with private entities for the operation of the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, as well as the renovation of the circa-1803 Clifton Mansion and the 141-year-old home of Druid Hill Park's superintendent.
Repairing the Washington Monument will boost the neighborhood's vitality, Hildreth predicted. "When it's restored and people see the obvious investment made and that people care about it and its upkeep is maintained, that has a ripple effect in that whole area. People want to come visit a place that local people care about," he said.
Humphries said the conservancy wants to return the monument to its past prominence in Baltimore tourism. Although information on the number of annual visitors is hard to come by, a guest book from 2008 shows visitors from Canada, Europe, Australia, South America and Asia, he said.
The monument, which was Baltimore's leading tourist attraction in the first half of the 19th century, continued to draw as many as 12,000 people annually in the 1980s.
Jorge Echeverri and his extended family made the trip downtown last week after flying from their home in Sarasota, Fla., for the Army Ten-Miler in the nation's capital.
They paused for a photo in front of the statue of 19th-century Baltimore lawyer Severn Teackle Wallis in the east square, with the monument towering in the background. Echeverri said they saw the monument as they were driving through the city and parked to get a closer look.
"We never stopped by in Baltimore, and you have a lot of history, so we said, 'Well, it would be nice to know what Baltimore is about and the history and all the monuments,' " Echeverri said. "Everything started in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, so it is good to have that reference firsthand."
His 12-year-old niece, Andrea Velasquez, is studying civics in the seventh grade, and the visit complements what's she's reading about, Echeverri said.