South Washington Place, looking north to the Washington Monument
We hopped on the MARC train the other morning, and journeyed from Capitol Hill to Penn Station in downtown Baltimore. Destination: Mount Vernon Place, home to the 180 foot tall Robert Mills designed Washington Monument, the Peabody Library, and the Walters Art Museum, where we attended a terrific exhibition called “Maps: Finding our Place in the World.”
The four park blocks of Mount Vernon Place
This place is one of the great urban spaces in the nation, and the story of its creation is both very typical of how American cities grow, and pretty funny as well.
In 1809 a group of prominent Baltimoreans asked the state legislature to allow them to conduct a lottery, a very common fundraising scheme then as now, for the purpose of creating the very first monument to George Washington. Legislators agreed, and a site was selected (the site of the old Baltimore Court House, then being torn down), a budget established ($100,000) and a design competition held.
Robert Mills, who described himself proudly as the first American born and trained architect, and who would design THE Washington Monument 18 years later, won the competition. His design focused on a 160 foot tall column, on top of which stood a nearly 20 foot tall statue of Washington, dressed in a toga and riding in a chariot (Washington got dressed in togas a lot in those times…). Mills was awarded the $500 prize, and the commission for the monument, in 1815.
When property owners around the old Court House saw Mills’ design, they got pretty upset, because they were sure that the column was going to topple over on one or another of their properties. It seemed the monument was doomed, but John Eager Howard, himself a revolutionary war hero and friend of Washington’s, came forward and donated the Mount Vernon Place site, the highest spot in Baltimore and then called Howard’s Woods. The site had the further advantage that it was well away from downtown, and fearful neighbors. Ground was broken on July 4th of 1815.
East Mount Vernon Place
The column was up and visible by 1824, but by then Mills had busted the budget by almost 300%, and had been forced to substantially simplify his design. To give you an idea of how overwrought Mills could be, take a look at his winning design for the Washington Monument in Washington.
I guess we should be glad that Mills kept running out of money.
Anyway, a competition was then held for the Washington statue, now sans chariot for lack of cash, and Enrico Causici was selected to sculpt a 21 ton toga-clad Washington. The statue was raised up in November of 1829, and the monument was complete. But not the great urban space.
West Mount Vernon Place
John Eager Howard died in 1827 before the monument was complete. It was his heirs who laid out the park blocks, in the form of a Greek cross. The Mount Vernon Places are on the east and west, the Washington Places on the north and south. Then, having created lovely park blocks, and because they owned all the adjacent land, Howard’s heirs began selling lots. By the 1850s, this was one of the wealthiest and most desirable places to live in all of Baltimore.
So let’s recap. We have here the most noble of civic intentions, games of chance, an overheated architect (is there any other kind?), a full complement of not-in-my-backyarders, more good civic intentions, a major budget bust, a shrewd real estate development, and lots of urban status seekers. Combine all of this and somehow, unbelievably but thankfully, we end up with this extraordinary urban space. It certainly could have been otherwise…
We had a wonderful day in Baltimore, we learned an entertaining story of American urbanism, we saw a fabulous exhibition of maps at the Walters (maps by da Vinci, Ben Franklin, A. Lincoln, Tolkien – go if you get a chance), and we spent time enjoying one of the best urban places you could ever hope to see.
And completely in keeping with the wacky story of the place, this is what we saw as we began the stroll back to Penn Station:
A young woman, out walking her pet turtle. Ahhh – urban life.