City officials are expecting thousands of people to gather in Mount Vernon on the Fourth of July for the “Monumental Bicentennial,” the reopening of Baltimore’s Washington Monument after a $5.5 million restoration.
But not everyone who wants to climb to the top of the newly-restored monument may be able do so on opening day.
As part of the reopening of the historic landmark following a lengthy restoration, city officials have imposed new restrictions on the way the monument can be occupied and operated, including a limit on the number of people who can climb to the top at any given time.
Under the city’s new restrictions, only five people will be allowed to go up at a time, and the next five won’t be able to go up until the previous five have come down. No exceptions.
This is a different policy from five years ago, when the monument was last open to the public and there was no limit on the number of people who could go to the top. From now on, operators of the monument will control occupancy by issuing tickets, which will be needed to go above the base.
At last month’s meeting of the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association, board member Scott Brillman advised community members about the change.
“You will want to get your tickets early,” he said. “There will be a line.”
Other Restrictions Imposed
The five-at-a-time rule is not the only new limit on access to the towering, white Mount Vernon attraction.
A second restriction is that people will no longer be allowed to go out on the platform at the top of the monument and look around, as they could before it closed for renovations. Visitors will be able to look out through four door-sized openings at the top of the monument, facing north, south, east and west. Three of the openings are covered with glass and one has metal bars.
A third restriction is that people will not be allowed to go out on the roof of the monument’s base, as they once could.
That roof, more than 24 feet off the ground, will be where Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and others will give speeches on Saturday, but after that it will not be accessible.
Fire Marshal’s Concerns
The monument, designed by Robert Mills and constructed between 1815 and 1829, is the first monument in the country dedicated to first President George Washington. The cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1815.
The structure was closed for repairs in 2010. It was restored as a joint venture of the City of Baltimore, which owns it, and the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, a non-profit group that has taken the lead on restoring and maintaining the monument and the four public parks around it, including fundraising.
Conservancy representatives say the restrictions were set by the city’s fire marshal, who reviews building renovation plans and sets limits on how buildings in the city can be operated, including the number of people who can occupy various spaces at a given time.
The fire marshal, John Carr, did not respond to an email request for information. A woman who answered the phone in the fire marshal’s office referred a reporter to the fire department’s public information office. The public information officer, Samuel Johnson, did not respond.
Others familiar with the restrictions say the fire marshal imposed them because stairs and door openings are narrow and he doesn’t want anyone to suffer an accident or health emergency and not receive adequate assistance because too many people were in the monument at once.
“He doesn’t want any headlines in the newspaper about someone dying at the top of the Washington Monument,” one said. They note that other historic landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty in New York City, also limit the number of visitors at the top.
Plans for Timed Entry
During a media preview of the restored monument this week, conservancy members said the organization is taking steps to control the number of visitors as the fire marshal ordered.
They say the fire marshal is allowing up to 50 people to occupy the base of the monument at a time and that is where people will be able to obtain time-specific tickets if they want to go to the top.
For now, they said, people will have to come to the monument to get tickets, and then go up to the top or return to start their climb when the ticket specifies. Eventually, they say, they hope to have a system that enables people to get timed tickets online, like the National Aquarium offers, but that is not available yet.
There is no cost to visit the monument’s base, which has two touch-screen stations that visitors can use to get information about the monument and its restoration, as well as videos about the conservancy and its vision for Mount Vernon Place. The cost to climb to the top will be $5 per person starting August 1. Until then, there is no charge but people still must obtain timed tickets.
The “Monumental Bicentennial Celebration” on July 4 will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. in and around the 600 block of North Charles Street.
It will include a naturalization ceremony to welcome 40 new U. S. citizens, a formal ribbon cutting, and a “family friendly” fair. Admission is free. More information is available at MonumentalBicentennial.org and mvpconservancy.org.
After Saturday, the monument will be open four days a week. The hours are noon to 5 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday.
Implications for Revenue
The fire marshal’s restrictions not only limit the number of people who can climb the monument on a given day but also how much revenue can be raised from ticket sales.
Conservancy members say it typically takes people 15 minutes to climb the 227 steps to the top, look around and come back down.
If five people go up every 15 minutes, that means up to 20 people an hour. If the monument is open five hours a day, that means up to 100 people a day. If the monument is open four days a week, that means up to 400 people a week. At 52 weeks a year, that’s a maximum of 20,800 people who can go up.
In terms of revenue, that works out to a maximum of $2,000 a week and $104,000 a year from ticket sales
Adrianne Carroll and Faith Millspaugh, co-chairs of the Monumental Bicentennial event, said they aren’t sure how many people will take part in the Bicentennial festivities or will want to climb to the top of the monument.
“We don’t have any expectations,” Carroll said. “We’re just welcoming any and all who want to join us.”
And if more people want to climb to the top than the fire marshal allows?
“They’ll just have to come back,” Carroll said. “It’s a fire safety rule. It’s not our decision.”
They note that some people may want to go inside the monument but not climb to the top, and those people will be able to use the touch screen displays to see a live feed from a “monument-cam” that shows views from the top of the monument.
They also note that the event will offer many other things to see and do besides going to the top of the monument, including visits to the Peabody Institute, the Maryland Historical Society, the Walters Art Museum and the Engineer’s Club.
“We’re ready,” Carroll said. “There’s plenty of food. Musicians will play. There’s a petting zoo.”
Door Openings and Parapets
As far as the prohibition on going outside at the top of the monument or on the roof of the base, conservancy members say, the restriction was set largely because of the height of the parapets and the size of door openings.
In both cases, they say, the parapets do not meet code for an exterior safety wall. But in order to alter the wall height, the conservancy would need permission from the Maryland Historic Trust, which has an easement on the property, and the Trust has not agreed to such changes.
For people to go out on the roof of the base, they say, the access doorway would have to be enlarged, and that again would require approval from the Maryland Historic Trust.
Carroll said the conservancy has created mockups to show how a clear glass or Plexiglas safety railing could be erected on the roof of the base without significantly altering the monument’s appearance. “We have the plans. We have everything,” she said. “So just as soon as we have clearance, we would be ready to go.”