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Public Works

by Peter Joseph

The evolution of a memorial.

This past month, the anniversary of September 11th brought increased national attention to an ongoing struggle at Ground Zero. Five years after the terrorist attacks, the site has come to represent the failed efforts to bring to agreement — and successfully placate — both financial desire and public sentiment. Those worried about the future of the World Trade Center memorial should take heart (or at least share frustration) in the fact that this is not the first time a national monument has been delayed by political squabbling, aesthetic complaints, and financial shenanigans.

Long before his death in 1799, George Washington was already exalted as an hero and near-saint. This popular adoration ranged from Gilbert Stuart's cottage industry of portraits to the more overtly worshipful paintings that depicted the ex-President poised to enter heaven guided by peach-cheeked cherubs. Amidst this fervent veneration of the man who was "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen," [1] , a physical memorial seemed inevitable. Congress originally proposed a monument just eight days after Washington's death, but nothing came to fruition until the citizens of Baltimore got involved.

In 1809 year a group of Baltimoreans agreed to raise $100,000 by lottery to fund what would be the first monument to memorialize Washington. Four years later they put out a call for designs, with a prize of $500. Against designs of triumphal arches and Masonic edifices, a design was selected in 1815. It was the product of Robert Mills, a man who based much of his reputation on his self-proclaimed status as America's first native-born architect.

Mills' design was certainly the most elaborate and expensive proposal at hand. As a Freemason and committed neoclassicist, he had managed to incorporate elements of the other designs while adding an even bolder display of pomp and grandiosity. His plans consisted of an enormous column resting atop a base, with several balconies extending from the column at various heights. At the monument's top would perch a quadriga, or four-horse chariot, with Washington holding the reins.

It was an ambitious project, and was quickly derided. Maximilian Godefroy, an architect who based his reputation on not being a native-born American, said that it resembled the pagoda of "Bob the Small" (remarkably this insult is no longer in use). The Baltimoreans in charge dealt with the negative publicity by demanding numerous changes to the initial design.

It would not be until 1829 that the monument would be completed. Its final form would be far different from Mills's $500 drawing. As the years passed and costs mounted, the column lost its balconies, Washington lost his horses, and the monument began to appear more reserved, even thrifty — perhaps a more fitting tribute to Washington than what was originally intended.

The day that the statue was set atop the Doric column, "a shooting star dashed across the sky and an eagle lit on the head of the settling general." [2]   Any day that a bird decides to perch on a statue is clearly auspicious , and the monument was deemed a success. Really, if anything was going to soon cast a shadow over Baltimore's Washington Monument, it was entirely the fault of its architect.

Six years after completion of the Washington Monument of Baltimore, Robert Mills won a contest for another memorial:  the Washington Monument of D.C.


1. This quotation was used by John Marshall in his speech to Congress upon Washington's death. It was written by Colonel Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee III, father of General Robert E. Lee.

2. Quotation from William Rusk's Art in Baltimore: Monuments and Memorials, via Wikipedia.com

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Articles in this Issue

The Twins, by Suzanne Montagne
The Moved, by Rebecca Peters-Golden
Hedy Lamarr, by David Wallace
The Place This Is, by Abby Sher
Broken, by Michael Chorost
Real Estate, by Katherine Carlson
Public Works, by Peter Joseph
Acoustics, by Michael Segell
September 2006


Peter Joseph is an editor for LOST.

Where loss is found.

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