Strolling by the broken benches, crumbling marble balustrades and crabgrass-infested garden beds around Baltimore’s Washington Monument, it’s not easy to imagine the classical grandeur that was the original dream for this space.
Yet that is exactly what Lance Humphries, board member and restoration chair of the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, envisions: symmetrical allées of shade trees, lush underplantings of shrubs, perennials and bulbs, well-manicured lawns and new sidewalks filled with tables, chairs and most importantly, people.
“We want Mount Vernon Place to be the world-class destination it has every right to be,” says the boyish art and architectural consultant who, with other board members, is spearheading a $12 million to $15 million renovation of the infrastructure and gardens of Mount Vernon Place.
“The Washington Monument and the four squares at Mount Vernon Place are, without question, Baltimore’s iconic centerpiece,” says Conservancy board president Henry H. Hopkins, retired general counsel of T. Rowe Price. “With the upcoming bicentennial of the [beginning of construction on the ] Washington Monument in 2015, the time is ripe to set in motion a plan of action that will both restore the monument and surrounding park squares and create the management structure to maintain this national treasure into the future.”
The monument and park have had various incarnations, from simple fenced-in green spaces to curvilinear high-Victorian gardens designed by the Olmsted firm in the late 1800s. In 1917, Carrère and Hastings of New York redesigned the squares in the French formal tradition to create a setting for a new statue of Lafayette that was dedicated during WWI. The current effort is revolutionary in that it is the first time a conservancy has been established in Baltimore City. That means the cost of the redevelopment of the gardens, the repairs to the infrastructure and the ongoing maintenance will be carried out in a public-private partnership between Baltimore City and the Conservancy.
“The City of Baltimore, like many other large cities, has many demands on its revenues,” says Hopkins. “The end result has been that the necessary resources have been unavailable to restore, maintain and manage Mount Vernon Place as the world-class urban space it was designed to be.” The hope is that this Conservancy also will serve as a template for others in Baltimore.
Humphries moved to Baltimore in 1995 to finish a doctoral dissertation on Robert Gilmor Jr., a merchant and renowned American art patron who for three decades collaborated with architect Robert Mills, designer of the monument, to create Mount Vernon Place. It was Gilmor’s most public philanthropic effort.
In 2001 Humphries moved to Mount Vernon. The next year the Friends of Mount Vernon Place commissioned a study by Project for Public Spaces in New York. They wanted more for this under-realized gem at the center of Baltimore and envied New Yorkers their Central and Bryant parks. When the study came back, it was clear that what would be required was more than the city could handle. In 2008, the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association and the Friends of Mount Vernon Place approached the Mayor’s Office with the idea of creating a conservancy. They got the green light and a conservancy was incorporated with a citywide board of directors. “It was bigger than a neighborhood project,” says Humphries, a passionate urban advocate.
By 2009, landscape design firm OLIN, of Philadelphia and Los Angeles, was selected to create the master plan for Mount Vernon Place. The firm had designed the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and Bryant Park in New York City. “They’re the premier landscape architects in the U.S.,” says Humphries. “They consider every detail, above and below the ground.”
The Conservancy is now in the process of finalizing a partnership agreement with the city for restoration and management of Mount Vernon Place. A development consultant has been engaged, and a capital campaign has begun to raise funds from local, state and federal sources, as well as private sources. “This is a National Historic Landmark District,” says Humphries of the designation awarded Mount Vernon Place in 1972. “We should have a wide reach.”
It will take several years to raise funds to allow all of the work to be completed, with completion of the restoration of the monument itself set for 2015. The bicentennial of the laying of its cornerstone is July 4 of that year.
Humphries never dreamed, when he arrived to finish his doctoral dissertation, that he would become an activist of any sort, let alone one instrumental in a nationally significant restoration of Robert Gilmor’s greatest gift to Baltimore. Now, thanks to him and others, in 2015 that gift and the gardens that surround it will be restored to their rightful elegance.