BALTIMORE - We are standing at the top of the Washington Monument - the first one planned in the United States - looking down at the sights.
And, no, we are not in Washington. In 1809, ten years after George Washington's death, some prominent Baltimoreans, noting there was no grand memorial to our first president, petitioned the state's General Assembly thusly: "Trophies to the memory of great and good men are an encouragement to virtuous and heroic deeds." Construction was approved in 1810 and completed in 1829, nearly six decades before the more famous monument in the nation's capital was finished.
This memorial was first planned for downtown, at Calvert and Fayette streets. Residents there nixed the idea, fearful that such a freestanding structure might topple on their homes. So it was decided to build on its current site north of the center city, at the time an expanse of thick woods and cultivated fields owned by John Eager Howard, Revolutionary War hero and former Maryland senator and governor.
This monument is a column, not an obelisk like the other. It stands 178 feet compared to the 555-foot tower on the west end of the National Mall, and it is topped by a statue of Washington. Like its counterpart to the south, one can climb to its summit.
It also dominates the skyline of the neighborhood, which is less than a mile from downtown and is called Mount Vernon after the president's estate. Robert Mills (1781-1855), who called himself the first architect professionally trained in America, designed both monuments.
There is no elevator in this first Washington Monument. One must climb 228 steps along a narrow, spiral staircase. At the top, four observation windows offer views of the Neo-classical early-19th-century buildings and statuary below. The outdoor observation deck is accessible only the first Thursday of every month and for special events such as marriage proposals. (Yes, romantics have popped the question under Washington's feet.)
With sides roughly thigh-high on an adult, the observation deck is not the place for acrophobes. Jennifer Morgan, director of the monument for Baltimore's Department of Recreation and Parks, tells of a photographer on a shoot who entered the deck crawling on his hands and knees. Lisa Keir, executive director of the Mount Vernon Cultural District, says claustrophobia has kept her from making even the trek up the stairs.
Those who do make it can view Mount Vernon Place below. Local boosters refer to it as "the best-preserved 19th-century urban square in the country." On one end is Brownstone Row, built in the 1850s and '60s and heavy with cast-iron balconies and porches.
Across the park from the brownstones is the majestic, marble Peabody Institute, now part of Johns Hopkins University, dating to the 1860s and home to a library and a world-renowned music conservatory. Statuary nearby depict luminaries such as General Lafayette, philanthropist George Peabody, and former Supreme Court justice and Maryland native Roger B. Taney.
As for the monument itself, the base is engraved with the dedication, "To George Washington by the state of Maryland." Other markings on the base denote highlights of Washington's career: "Trenton 23 December 1776"; "York Town, 19 October 1781"; "President of the United States 6 March 1789"; and "Retired to Mount Vernon 6 March 1797."
The monument was financed by a series of lotteries. Construction lasted nearly 14 years and cost twice the original $100,000 estimate. The monument's Board of Managers netted $82,000 in three lotteries held before 1815 and an additional $30,000 from three more lotteries over the next decade. Yet by 1825, the money was spent and while the main column had been built, there were still no statue, inscriptions, or iron fence. The statue was put in place in 1829.
Keir adds a footnote: The Baltimore monument was not the first to Washington - though it was the first planned. In the western Maryland town of Boonsboro, current population about 2,800, a 30-foot-high stone monument to Washington was completed and dedicated in 1827. It has been rebuilt twice, and resembles an old pint milk bottle. Morgan downplays the landmark, saying "the Boonsboro Monument was in fact, literally, a pile of rocks."
Michael Schuman, a writer in Keene, N.H., can be reached at email@example.com.