After walking about a mile I came to the summit of a hill that overlooked the city, and there I stopped a moment to take breath.…The ground had begun to smoke with the warmth of the rising sun, and the city seemed to spread itself out before me.…towering above the fog was the Washington Monument, a single beautiful shaft 160 feet in height, rendered indescribably striking and interesting from the touching solitude of the scene from which it lifts its head…after feasting my eyes for some time on the rich, diversified and boundless landscape that lay before me, meditating on the future grandeur of the city and on the rising glories of the nation, I turned to resume my walk into the country.
– – William Wirt, 1822.
On July 4, 1815 the people of Baltimore climbed a lush wooded hill overlooking the city to lay the cornerstone for the first monument to George Washington in the United States. Like other Julys in Baltimore, the day was probably sweltering, the hot sun beating down on this crowd of 20,000 as they hiked the incline to Howard’s Woods.
Plans for the monument began prior to the War of 1812 and funding was obtained through a lottery which raised $178,000 for its construction. The winning design (though the monument was never completed entirely to his specifications) was submitted by Robert Mills, a student of both Benjamin Latrobe and Thomas Jefferson.
“Great Washington stands high aloft on his towering main-mast in Baltimore and like one of Hercules’ pillars, his column marks that point in human grandeur beyond which few mortals will go.”
Herman Melville, 1851
The location originally chosen was the site of an earlier courthouse in the old city center, but there arose considerable public concern that the height of the proposed column might constitute a hazard to the populace in the event of toppling stones. John Eager Howard, a hero of the revolution and owner of considerable property, offered an alternate plan by donating a site in Howard’s Woods, a hill one mile north of the city adjoining his Belvedere mansion and estate. The forested, park like site was beautiful, and its elevation provided a spectacular view of the growing city, as well as making the monument viewable to those entering the Baltimore harbor.
The finished column is 160 feet tall and capped with a 16 foot statue depicting Washington as he resigned his commission at Annapolis. Built of glistening white marble, it was completed in 1829. Two hundred and twenty interior spiral steps lead to the top of the monument and a spectacular view of the city. The base is engraved with the following:
Born February 22, 1732
Commander-in-Chief of the American Army, June 15, 1775
Trenton, December 25, 1776
Yorktown, October 19, 1781
Commission resigned at Annapolis, December 23, 1783
President of the United States, March 4, 1789
Retired to Mount Vernon, March 4, 1797
Died, December 4, 1799
In 1831, heirs of John Eager Howard gave additional land for the creation of four small parks which today surround the monument. The plan for these attractive squares (East Mount Vernon Place, West Mount Vernon Place, North Washington Place and South Washington Place) was completed by the monument’s original designer, Robert Mills.The Howard family sold building lots around the perimeters of the parks and the neighborhood soon became the best address in Baltimore.
Over the years our city’s boundaries have extended well beyond the Monument, and the neighborhood of elegant 19th century buildings and town homes that surround it today is known as Mount Vernon Place. It is an area rich in Baltimore history; to learn the histories available at Mount Vernon Place is to grasp a flavor of old Baltimore and of our growing nation.
Janet Freedman; Baltimore, Maryland; 2002