The Washington Monument at Mount Vernon Place in Baltimore, begun in 1815 and completed in 1829, is a colossal, classical Greek Doric column mounted on a stone base. Crowned by a statue of George Washington, the 178-foot-tall monument was the first in the country to commemorate the Revolutionary War hero and first president. Although Congress advocated for a national monument to Washington before his death in 1799, it was not until 1848 that the grand obelisk in Washington, D.C. ( DC-01-ML09) was begun. Thus it was that the citizens of Baltimore—under the direction of a Board of Managers comprised of the city’s most prominent citizens and lead by its foremost patron of the arts, Robert Gilmor Jr.—erected the first substantial memorial in Washington’s honor. The monument was built by contractors Towson and Steuart utilizing Baltimore craftsmen and locally quarried stone and other indigenous materials. Robert Mills (1781–1885), regarded as America’s first native-born and trained architect, was responsible for the monument’s design.
Mills capitalized upon his unique American status to secure the commission, but his design is derived from European models, notably Trajan’s Column (completed 113 CE and built in Rome to honor Emperor Marcus Ulpius Traianus) and the Vendome Column (completed 1810 in Paris in honor of the armies of Louis XIV), which was itself based on the Roman precedent. Building on these examples, Mills designed a prototype American monument that reflected his own ideals within the context of a young nation in search of identity. Mills biographer John Bryan attests that while Mills based his design on well-known precedents, “the assemblage was his own, and it raised the architectural expression of American pride and ambition to a new level.” Indeed, the completion of the Washington Monument was followed closely by the construction of the Battle Monument in Lafayette Square, and the two projects helped Baltimore earn the title “The Monumental City.” Their construction not only brought national attention to Baltimore, but also sparked a rash of monument and statuary building that lasted for over a century.
The similarities between Mills’s Washington Monument and Trajan’s Column are primarily in their general configuration: both have hollow shafts containing a spiral staircase that leads to a viewing platform at its top, and both are mounted on a base that houses a chamber. In Rome, the base contains a burial vault; in Baltimore, it is a small gallery used to display memorabilia relating to Washington’s accomplishments. There are also significant differences: Trajan’s Column is ringed with bas relief depictions of epic battles; Washington’s is unornamented and punctuated only by three small windows that light the stair. Mills chose not to place the memorialization on the column; instead, it appears in the form of inscriptions over the four doorways that punctuate each elevation of the base, and in the elaborate iron railing that Mills designed to encircle the monument. Mills painstakingly researched these details to be true to classical forms, basing them upon the designs featured in Michel-Francois Dandre-Bardon’s Costumes des Anciens Peuples, a L’usage des Artistes.
Atop the column rests a statue of George Washington (measuring 16 feet and 6 inches in height) mounted on a circular base. The statue, by Italian sculptor Enrico Causici, depicts an event that represents Maryland’s greatest claim on significance in Washington’s life. He is shown in the act of resigning his military commission in Annapolis, Maryland’s capital city; his hand is outstretched as he presents a scroll, presumably turning over his now historic document.
Bryan, John M. America’s First Architect, Robert Mills. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.
Lavoie, Catherine C., “Washington Memorial, Mount Vernon Place,” HABS No. MD-7, Historic American Buildings Survey, 2005. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
“Designs for a Monument Proposed to be erected in the City of Baltimore To the Memory of General George Washington submitted to the honorable Board of Managers by Robert Mills of South Carolina, Architect, Philadelphia, 1814,” Maryland Historical Society, MS 876, Box 3, Washington Monument.
Miller, J. Jefferson, II. “Baltimore’s Washington Monument.” Master’s thesis, University of Delaware, March 1962.
Mills Papers, 1820-1835, Maryland Historical Society, Manuscript Collection.