Washington Monument & Mount Vernon Place

200 years ago, Baltimoreans envisioned and commenced one of the most beautiful urban spaces in America: Mount Vernon Place.

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Below is a brief narrative outlining important milestones in Mount Vernon Place’s history.

Baltimore’s Washington Monument

This centerpiece of a National Historic Landmark has its origins in Baltimoreans’ interest in erecting a monument to George Washington, the first President of the United States, and the democratic ideals he represented. A competition was held for the monument’s design, which Robert Mills won in early 1814 with an elaborate initial concept. Mills is credited with being the first native-born American to become a professional architect, and would decades later design the Washington monument for the nation’s capitol.

Fig 1 MDHS credit Mills orig Design Fig. 1

Intended to be located in today’s Monument Square on Calvert Street, when nearby residents saw Mills’ winning design, they feared the tall column might topple on their houses in the event of a natural disaster. With these concerns, a new location was found north of the city on a 200 square foot plot of land donated by Revolutionary War hero John Eager Howard from his vast “Belvidere” estate. The area surrounding the monument’s site was untamed, and was generally known as “Howard’s Woods.”

With its cornerstone laid on July 4, 1815, the monument became the first public monument to honor Washington. By this time Mills’ elaborate tiered design had been modified, largely to the simple column on square base we have today. The project was funded by a state-enabled lottery, as were many semi-public projects at this time.

Baltimoreans were particularly proud to be erecting this monument to Washington in light of their recent role in securing American liberty during the Battle of Baltimore, a turning point in the War of 1812 the previous fall. They were similarly proud that it was built of local white marble, from quarries north of the city in Baltimore County.

In 1829 the main column of the monument was completed when the statue of Washington, sculpted by the Italian artist Henrico Causici, was raised to its top. Washington is shown resigning his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in 1783 at the Maryland State House in Annapolis, an act recognized in its day as an unprecedented peaceful transfer of power—symbolic of what this new American democracy could achieve. A decorative cast iron fence enclosing the monument, also designed by Mills, was installed in 1836-38.

DCF 1.0
Fig. 2

The monument quickly became an important symbol of the city and state. In 1823 Joseph Gales, editor of the Washington, DC newspaper the National Intelligencer, was apparently the first to dub Baltimore “The Monument City.” Although he used the phrase somewhat sarcastically, it quickly become an honorific. By the time President John Quincy Adams, who assisted in composing the text of the bronze inscriptions on the monument’s base outlining the key events in Washington’s life, visited Baltimore in 1827, the phrase was in such common usage he toasted the future success of “The Monumental City.”

The Squares of Mount Vernon Place

Working with John Eager Howard’s heirs who owned the land surrounding the monument, Robert Mills laid out the original configuration of the squares, and the new street plan was formalized by legislation in 1831. Howard’s original square of donated land was expanded to include open spaces on the north-south and east-west axes, named respectively “Washington Place” and “Mount Vernon Place.” furthering honoring Washington and his revered home. Over time “Mount Vernon Place” has come to be used to describe all of the squares surrounding the monument.

H13 View of Baltimore City
Fig. 3

Although houses began to be built on Mount Vernon Place as early as 1829 when John Eager Howard’s son Charles Howard built the first house on the squares on the northeast corner of Washington and Mount Vernon Places (the site today of the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church), the park squares remained largely unimproved for several decades. In 1850, all of the squares were encircled by iron fences, and uniform trees installed around the perimeters. The centers were largely greenswards at this time with several isolated shrubs.

The squares have been redesigned and replanted several times in their history. In 1875-76 Frederick Law Olmsted’s Boston firm was hired by the City of Baltimore to redesign the north and south squares, while the city implemented similar designs in the east and west squares. At this time, the cast iron fences that encircled the places were removed, and various pathways through the squares installed. Low decorative stone walls were added at the entrances, and over time fountains and a number of bronzes sculptures were added to further ornament these designed spaces. As before, uniform trees framed the edges of the squares.

Fig 4 olmsted postcard North sq
Fig. 4

Franco-American Relations During WWI

Shortly after the United States entered World War I in 1917, Baltimoreans broke ground in Mount Vernon Place for a statue of the Marquis de Lafayette, the Frenchman who had come to the aid of the American colonists fighting for their liberty during the Revolutionary War. By this act, Baltimoreans demonstrated their support for the modern-day French people fighting for their liberty.

Thomas Hastings, at the time the surviving partner of the New York architectural firm of Carrère and Hastings, was brought in by the City of Baltimore to design a setting for this new statue of Lafayette. Early in the design process it was decided to place the statue at the top of the south square so that the two great liberators, Washington and Lafayette, would be together historically and artistically.

Carrere & Hastings Redesign the Squares

Fig 5 C and H Rendering South Sq 1917
Fig. 5
Almost immediately, however, Hastings was asked to redesign all of the squares of Mount Vernon Place, and he worked on this project in several campaigns beginning in 1917. Hastings redesigned the squares using the classical vocabulary of his Beaux-Arts training, and his design was an exemplar of City Beautiful-inspired architectural and landscape design, which called for symmetry, uniformity and axiality.

Hastings utilized white marble to harmonize his new work with the existing monument, and retained the tradition in the east, west and north squares of matched trees framing the squares. After his hardscape work was completed, the trees in all of these squares were replanted to ensure they would mature uniformly, creating and maintaining a crisp border on their edges. Hastings supported this wholesale replanting as necessary for the future integrity of his design.

Lafayette Statue Dedicated 1924

Fig 6 South Sq 1928 UCR-California Museum of Photography
Fig. 6
The architect treated the south square differently as Hastings’ entire design was meant to showcase the new statue against the monument. As documented in his original rendering and early photographs, here he retained some of the existing shrubbery and several trees as a framing device for this most important view of the monument and new statue as seen from the south. In 1924 the equestrian statue of Lafayette by the American sculptor Andrew O’Connor was installed with American President Calvin Coolidge presiding over the sculpture’s unveiling. On the monument’s base are found dedicatory inscriptions written by President Woodrow Wilson and French President Raymond Poincaré, written after armistice had been declared at the end of World War I:

Wilson inscription:

Lafayette, immortal because a self-forgetful servant of justice and humanity. Beloved by all Americans because he acknowledged no duty more sacred than to fight for the freedom of his fellow-men.

Poincaré inscription (translated from the original French):

In 1777 Lafayette, crossing the seas with French volunteers, came to bring brotherly help to the American people who were fighting for their national liberty.

In 1917 France was fighting, in her turn, to defend her life and the liberty of the world. America, who had never forgotten Lafayette, crossed the seas to help France, and the world was saved.

Over time, beginning with Charles Howard’s house in 1829, handsome mansions, cultural institutions, churches and other buildings were erected around the perimeter of the squares of Mount Vernon Place. For decades, Mount Vernon Place has served as a public gathering place to celebrate traditional festivals which attract hundreds of thousands each year.

Mount Vernon Place, one of the most beautiful urban spaces in America, has been, and continues to be enjoyed by generations of Baltimoreans and travelers from around the world.


Figure credits:

Fig. 1 Robert Mills, Original Design for the Washington Monument. Maryland Historical Society.

Fig. 2 Robert Cary Long, Jr., The Washington Monument and Charles Howard House, ca. 1829. Maryland Historical Society.

Fig. 3 E. Sachse & Co, View of Baltimore City, 1850, Maryland Historical Society.

Fig. 4 North Square in a colored postcard, ca. 1910. Private collection.

Fig. 5 Carrere & Hastings, Original Rendering for the South Square, 1917. As published in The American Architect, Jan. 16, 1918.

Fig. 6 South Square, ca. 1928. Keystone-M

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